With a myriad fish and flashy colors, our Polynesian Reef will transport you to an ocean paradise. This exhibit is designed to showcase the sea life of thousands of small, picturesque islands in the Western and South Pacific. With 65,000 gallons of saltwater, it’s the second largest tank in the Oklahoma Aquarium.
More than 50 species of fish comprise our Polynesian Reef. These fish include several species of angelfish, damselfish, tang, wrasse, butterflyfish, triggerfish, rabbitfish, hogfish, grouper, parrotfish, and more! Two green moray eels (Gymnothorax funebris) swim around a sunken ship in part of the exhibit. Green moray eels can grow longer than eight feet, though most are around six feet long. Just like their relative, the honeycomb moray eel, a green moray eel has two sets of jaws! The top jaw grabs the food and the jaw behind it delivers food from the first jaw to the stomach.
Since so many coral reefs are suffering from human activities and rising water temperatures, it would be unethical to harvest large amounts of coral for an aquarium. Instead, when aquariums have live corals (as seen in our Eco Zone exhibit), the corals are grown from small polyps. This enables us to take fewer polyps from the ocean and to grow coral in safe, controlled environments. Our Polynesian Reef, however, is far too large to contain live corals so the reef on display is artificial. Using an artificial reef allows us to display a wider variety of fish; if we had a live reef, we would only be able to have the fish that coexist nicely with specific types of corals. These fish would normally thrive in different reefs, but they are able to thrive here in our artificial reef because we supply all the nutrients and hiding spaces that live coral would ordinarily supply.
Coral thrives in shallow waters where sunlight can reach their polyps, which are the individual animals that make up coral. They need this sunlight because they rely on symbiotic algae to photosynthesize and create energy for the coral. In exchange, the symbiotic algae get to live safely within the coral’s tissues. These symbiotic algae along with chromophores (including fluorescent proteins) give the coral their magnificent colors. When corals are stressed they may lose their symbiotic algae and therefore their color. This phenomenon, known as bleaching, can be caused by a variety of stressors including fluctuations in water temperature, nutrients, irradiation, or pollutants. Once a coral is bleached it may die if it does not recruit symbiotic algae back.
Unfortunately, many of the stressors responsible for bleaching events are the direct result of human activity, and this is a tremendous issue for many reasons. First of all, coral reefs are one of the most important marine habitats. Though they make up only 1% of our oceans, coral reefs are home to 25% of all marine life. Secondly, reefs are essential to humans. They act as a barrier to dangerously high tides, and their biodiversity generates millions of dollars for commercial fishing and the tourism industry. Without protection, it is estimated that coral reefs could be functionally extinct by the year 2040. Thankfully, this is a preventable fate. The Oklahoma Aquarium has already begun making strides towards protecting our reefs by conducting innovative research on stress related fluorescence in corals. But you don’t have to be a scientist to help save our reefs. There are plenty of choices we all make in our daily lives that can improve the health of our oceans. Visit our conservation resources page to learn about how you can take action to help protect coral reefs.
The green moray eel gets its name from its color, but the skin is actually brown. They only appear green because they are covered in a mucus with a yellowish tint. This mucus allows them to creep into tight spaces along reefs without damaging their skin.
The slingjaw wrasse eats its food by creating a long hose-like shape with its jaws. The bottom jaw, which is detached from the skull, stretches forward to grab food. Their jaws shoot out at incredible lengths—sometimes even as much as half the fish’s body length.
The unicorn tang’s horn might seem like the perfect weapon, but unicornfish actually fight with one another using sharp barbs on the sides of their tails. As for the horn, scientists still don’t know what purpose it serves—but it sure looks fabulous!
Fish Species on Exhibit:
Standing out among the schools of brightly colored fish are the humphead wrasse and the zebra shark. These beautiful fish are a tremendous privilege to care for as they are both listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). We hope that bringing their beauty to Oklahoma will continue to inspire their conservation by all who see them, as both species are striking in appearance and important in their ecosystems.
While our humphead wrasse is still a juvenile, she may not be the most noticeable fish in the tank. As she reaches full size, she will not be ignored. The humphead wrasse is the largest reef-dwelling fish, as adults often weigh more than 400 pounds and reach six feet in length. They earn their name from a large bulge that grows on their forehead; while scientists are still unsure of the purpose of this bulge, they believe it may serve primarily as an ornament to attract mates. Both males and females posses a forehead hump because the hump develops from an early age, and all humphead wrasse are born female. The females are able to later transition to males, but not all individuals will transition.
Since humphead wrasse live upwards of 30 years, their presence in an aquarium serves to educate several generations about marine life and conservation. These fish are particularly important for reef conservation efforts because they are one of a few species that eat coral-eating fish; in other words, their eating habits maintain a healthy amount of predation on coral reefs.
Similarly, our zebra shark will also educate many generations on the importance of conservation. While we have one shark on display, our biology staff houses and cares for multiple zebra sharks. We have both sexes on site, and we received the sharks when they were mere eggs; we hope that when they reach maturity, we can partner with other organizations to help breed zebra sharks in captivity or develop other plans for their conservation in the wild.
As a "carpet shark," zebra sharks pose little threat to humans unless provoked. They feast along the bottoms of reefs and use barbels, or whisker-like projections, to taste and feel their food. They mainly eat small invertebrates, like crabs and urchins, but they will also hunt small fish. With their leopard-like spots, people frequently mistake them for leopard sharks, which are an entirely different species. The name actually originates from their appearance as juveniles; when zebra sharks first hatch, they have black and white stripes like a zebra. As they mature, the stripes are replaced with spots and their white coloration fades into hues of yellow.
Black spot angel
Lemon peel tang
Orange shoulder tang
Powder blue and powder brown tang
Sleek unicorn tang
Yellow masked tang
Blue spot rabbitfish
Golden saddle rabbitfish
Orange spot rabbitfish
Redbelly yellowtail fusilier