From coral reefs to coastal marshes and beyond, the EcoZone displays different types of “oceans’ nurseries,” as many of these habitats provide safe, shallow waters with plenty of hiding places. You will also find deep sea cave animals and colorful cichlids from Africa’s Lake Malawi.
With many animals you can touch or feed, the EcoZone is one of our most interactive areas in the Oklahoma Aquarium. In the rocky coast, visitors may touch sea stars, abalone, and even shark eggs. Visitors can also touch grown sharks or juvenile stingrays in our Shark and Ray Touch Tank. If you don’t mind risking a little splash, you can also feed shrimp to the stingrays in the mangrove forest.
Rocky Coast and Kelp Forest
The rocky coast shows us life along the chilly north Pacific coast from Northern California to Alaska. Here, you can touch sea stars, abalone, and shark eggs. You’ll also witness a fluorescing swell shark whose fluorescence was discovered right here at the Oklahoma Aquarium! Fluorescing is a scientific word for “glowing.” These sharks and other sea life may not appear to glow to the human eye, but it is only because we do not see the same wavelengths of light that marine life can see. On the other hand, if humans excite the fluorescent proteins with a bright light and wear special tinted glasses, we can see them glow the same way other animals see them! In addition to glowing sharks, the rocky coast is also home to many other interesting animals such as urchins, sea cucumbers, giant sea stars, and carnivorous anemones.
Adjacent to the rocky coast is our kelp forest. Home to a diverse array of marine life, kelp forests provide nutrients and safety to their inhabitants. The giant kelp that makes up these forests is a type of macro algae that can grow up to 18 inches per day. They not only provide food and shelter for fish and marine mammals, but they also act as an essential resource for people. Giant kelp is a common household ingredient used in some toothpaste, lipsticks, medicine capsules, and even ice cream.
Some say the depths of our oceans are Earth’s last frontier—the deeper you go, the less we know. However, the deep-sea creatures we do know about are unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Our deep-sea caves feature two of the hardiest creatures alive: hagfish and giant isopods!
The hagfish is even stranger than its name; they’re covered in slime and congregate by the hundreds to eat dead animals from the inside out. The protein-based slime covering their bodies is produced by specialized glands, which can easily produce five gallons of slime in only a few minutes. This slime, which expands in the water, suffocates predators that ingest it. These spineless, jawless creatures have also adapted to survive for months without eating.
The giant isopod is another deep-sea cave dweller who has adapted to long periods without food. These prehistoric crustaceans are found between 550 to 7,020 feet below the surface where food can be scarce. As a result, giant isopods have evolved to live up to five years without eating!
Coastal marshes, or grass flats, are wetlands with brackish (low salinity) waters dominated by plants called eelgrasses. They provide excellent protection for young fish and are bountiful food sources for seabirds such as pelicans. The coastal marsh of the Oklahoma Aquarium features a red drum, a vital game fish that brings in millions of dollars for coastal communities. The males make a drumming sound by vibrating muscles against their swim bladder to attract females.
The vibrant cichlids of Africa’s enormous Lake Malawi reside in the only freshwater habitat of our EcoZone. These cichlids tend to be territorial in the wild, but when they live in high densities, as they do in this exhibit, they cannot claim a territory and can coexist peacefully. Some scientists estimate that Lake Malawi is home to more than 1,000 different species of cichlid fish, 95% of which are found exclusively in Lake Malawi!
Mangrove trees are small trees with long thick roots. They grow in coastal zones where the waters are brackish, so each mangrove species has some adaptation to deal with salt excretion. Animals that live amongst the mangroves must be equally adapted to these brackish waters, mainly because these habitats experience frequent tidal fluctuations accompanied by significant changes in water temperatures and salt content. Mangroves are essential to ocean habitats because they catch the smelly sediment runoff from the land before polluting the ocean with heavy metals.
The animals in our mangrove forest include Southern, Atlantic, and cownose stingrays. All of these fish love when our visitors make a trip to the Stingray Feed Stand to get shrimp for them to snack on. The feed stand is open every day while food supplies last.
Coral reefs are the most extensive nursery grounds in the ocean. For example, 25% of all marine animals start their lives on a coral reef. However, 30% of all fish species in the ocean call coral reefs home. Reef systems protect small and juvenile animals and protect shorelines from the big waves caused by storms out at sea. The value of coral reefs is in the trillions of dollars annually because of the fish caught for us to eat, the protection to our shorelines, and tourism.
Corals fluoresce! Though we can see a little bit of glow without any special tools, most coral fluorescence is not visible to the unaided human eye. This is because most fish can see different wavelengths of light than humans can. Research done right here at the Oklahoma Aquarium shows that fluorescence in corals may be an indicator of stress that we can use to save coral reefs from bleaching and dying.
Shark and Ray Touch Tank
Our Shark and Ray Touch Tank is a safe and fun way to learn and interact with a few of our ocean’s most feared creatures. The tank houses young bat rays as well as spotted bamboo sharks and spotted catsharks. None of these animals are capable of harming humans. Similar to the painless clipping of fingernails, we have clipped the barbs from the rays so they are perfectly safe to touch. Additionally, the sharks pose no threat to humans as they only feast on tiny invertebrates and have minuscule teeth about the size of velcro hooks. The “teeth” you should really pay attention to are the ones on their skin. All cartilaginous fish, including sharks and rays, have a form of small, modified teeth on their skin. These tooth-like structures are called dermal denticles; their purpose is to help cartilaginous fish swim faster and quieter, but they also make sharks and rays feel extra nice to pet!
Designated Touch Times:
Every day: 11-11:20 a.m., 1-1:20 p.m., 3-3:20 p.m., and 5-5:20 p.m.
Open late Tuesdays: 7 - 7:20 p.m. and 8 - 8:20 p.m.