A is for American Alligators…

Two toothy American alligators, Barack & Michelle, came to live at St Andrews Aquarium last winter as little baby snappers, but these apex predators don’t stay small for long.

Once an endangered species, the American alligator population has been brought back from the brink of extinction thanks to dedicated global conservation efforts. Our alligators require special care and attention, so read on for a snappy insight into the alligator lifestyle as we get the reptilian skinny from one of our pampered alligator mississippiensis.


What I like to eat

Life is a seafood buffet when you’re a ‘gator; fish, turtles, or any little critters that come too close to the water: I’ll snap my powerful jaws around any morsel I can find, so watch out for those fingers and toes! Have you seen my teeth? Rather magnificent, and my pride and joy; I can chomp my way through up to 3000 of them in a lifetime, all without the intervention of a dental professional. If you think that’s impressive, wait ‘til you hear about my glottis; it’s a nifty valve at the back of my throat that it lets me devour my prey, even when I’m underwater. Never know when you might get peckish, eh?

What I look like

I might thrash around a bit if you DARE compare me to a crocodile, especially once I’ve told you how to tell us apart. My teeth remain tucked away neatly when I close my mouth; and my snout is much more rounded and elegant. I spend a lot of time looking at my reflection in the river, and I have to conclude from my mirror image I am a rather handsome fellow.

Where I hang out

I like my water fresh, but keep your Evian bottles in the fridge; I’m happy to wallow in any cool, shaded river bed or swamp with low sodium content. Because my body is cold-blooded, I can regulate my temperature to suit, but generally, I like things cosy, and prefer the warm swamps of Florida as my home. Mmmm… catfish gumbo, divine!

My life cycle

It takes me up to ten years to reach maturity and I attract a mate with my fearsome roar! If she takes a liking to me, we can have 90 eggs together. I’m a doting parent, and even though up to 80 per cent of my hatchlings can fall foul of Mother Nature, I’ll defend them ferociously from harm. The good news is, once we’re grown there’s no stopping us, and as an apex predator I can expect a good innings; I might live to snuff out 50 candles on my birthday cake before I retire.

B is for Black Tip Reef Shark

While you certainly won’t run into Jaws when you’re paddling at the East Sands beach, St Andrews Aquarium does have its very own shark-in-residence. Our black-tip reef shark is still a baby, and rather small, but in the wild, these toothy Carcharhinidae can grow up to 1.6 metres in length. Bluish-grey in colour, black-tip sharks are easily spotted for their dorsal fins, which look a little like they’ve been dipped in ink and the white stripe which sears down their flanks.

These apex predators hail from the cosy coral reefs of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but in recent years they have also populated the eastern Mediterranean Sea by way of the man-made Suez Canal. They like to hang out in the shallow waters of bays, estuaries and river mouths. Sadly, this has made them vulnerable to human development, and in some countries, they are captured and made into shark fin soup.

Speaking of food, reef sharks aren’t fussy eaters. They are happy devour a wide range of menu offerings, from the colourful, crunchy mantis shrimp to squelchy octopus and squid. They’re also great team players, working together to drive prey like mullet, wrasse and grouper towards the shoreline for an all-you-can-eat fish buffet. During a feeding frenzy, they show little regard for etiquette, and can even breach the surface of the water as they enthusiastically thrash and chomp their prey.

Although the reef shark has quite limited vision, it has other means of sensing its prey. Sharks are the most electrically sensitive of all animals, with electroreceptor cells on their snouts which help with communication, navigation, and feeding. As if this wasn’t enough of a talent, in very rare cases, female reef sharks have been discovered to fertilise their own eggs, suggesting they might be able to reproduce without the presence of males!

Black tip reef sharks are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young rather than eggs. It can take up to 11 months of gestation before baby reef sharks are ready to be born: that’s two months longer than humans!

C is for Caimans…

Our spectacular, Spectacled Caimans might look a little bookish with their ridged eye-rings, but they’re anything but reserved. Although typically shy as hatchlings, cute little caiman grow up to be big, bold, aggressive crocodilian. It’s a common misconception that caiman are tiny. In fact, these predators can grow to a whopping eight or nine feet long, and are quite similar to the American Alligator in size.

Found in the swamps of South and Central America, the Spectacled Caiman is a modern day dinosaur. Females make adoring and dedicated babysitters, and just one will look after the babies from several families, protecting them from potential dangers, even if they aren’t her own. While they might look lumbering and a little Jurassic, these creatures have benefitted from millions of years of evolutionary tweaking. The caiman design has reached its predatory pinnacle. Here are some of its most exciting adaptations.

Pressure-sensitive jaws

Dappling the caiman’s rounded jaws are hundreds of teeny-tiny, pressure sensitive dots. No, they’re not freckles, these dots detect minute changes in the atmosphere around them when they’re submerged in murky water, meaning they can quickly swivel and devour prey in one lethal chomp!

Goggle-eyed surprise

Caimans have three sets of eyelids (as if their own spectacles weren’t enough). Their third set of eyelids is made of filmy, transparent material, acting as underwater goggles to help this sneaky predator see underwater.

Seeing red

When a light is shone on the caiman’s eyes at night-time, their retinas reflect back a ruby-red glow, which has made them particularly vulnerable to hunting. Indeed, they are the most heavily harvested creature by humans for the hide industry.

Fast movers

The caiman might look slow, but these creatures have adapted to get around water in a flash, and caiman can swim up to 30 mph, with streamlined legs and claws that propel them with ease through water and mud. Their tails are articulated, and move freely, allowing them additional propulsion and whip-fast momentum in the water.

Armoured vehicle

While it’s probably not a good idea to try insulting one, the caiman could be described as thick-skinned, with strong, outer armour and rough scales to protect it from its harsh environment, and any predators. Camouflage is a second line of defense, and like a modern warfare tank, the caiman’s body armour is adapted to match the colours of its environment.

D is for Dogfish…

…and not a pooch in sight! Now, just to clear things up, the Dogfish is not a fish that barks or has a  wagging tail. In fact, it couldn’t be further removed from our canine friends. The Dogfish is in fact a member of the shark family. Perhaps canines of the teeth variety is the closest connection between the dog and Dogfish. Their one other similarity with dogs is that there are many species of Dogfish too – all varying in appearance, size and where they inhabit water.

Here at the Aquarium we currently have two species of the Dogfish that are noticeably different from each other. The first is the Lesser Spotted Dogfish which is sometimes called a Small Spotted Catshark (yes, we know – they don’t miaow either) but is better known as a Dogfish. The second species is called a Bull Huss which is less common that the Lesser Spotted Dogfish. The most noticeable difference between the two species is their size.

Some say less(er) is more

For a relatively small shark, our Lesser Spotted Dogfish are full of personality and craziness. For example, our largest resident Lesser is a big female called Mad Dog. And, in a case of ‘so unoriginal it feels original’, the smallest resident Lesser is a male called Little Mad Dog.

Here’s a few more facts about Mad Dog and her fellow Lesser Spotted Dogfish pals:

Alias: Small Spotted Catshark, Scyliorhinus caniculaSize: 80-100cmAppearance: a slender body and a blunt head. A greyish colour with dark spotsSpot me: off the coasts of Europe from Norway all the way to Africa

Say “Cheers” to our Bull Huss Dogfish

We said “hello” to some new arrivals at the end of 2014 when we introduced three Bull Huss to the Aquarium. The trio have rather aptly been named after their scientific name, Scyliorhinus stellaris.

The two larger females are called Stella and Grolsch and the smaller male is called Bud. Stella and Grolsch are literally three times the size of Bud. They all get along famously though.

Here’s a bit more background to our Bull Huss so you can spot them when you are at the Aquarium:

Alias: Greater Spotted Dogfish, Large Spotted Catshark, NursehoundSize: anything up to approximately 150cmAppearance: like a Lesser Spotted Dogfish, but larger with large brown patched on its back and sidesSpot me: on the sea bed in the North Atlantic off the coast of Britain and Ireland

E is for Eels…

With his glaring eyes and razor-sharp gnashers, one of the most menacing-looking underwater lurkers of the St Andrew’s Aquarium is the majestic moray eel. Although their startling looks have earned them a scary reputation, moray eels are actually quite shy, much preferring to curl up in an off-shore rock crevice than to take a chomp at human flesh!

Found in tropical and temperate areas all over the world, moray eels seek out much cosier waters than you’ll find in the North Sea, and thrive in tropical coral reefs. They range from a piddling 6 inches to a whopping 13 feet long, making them the largest variety of eel in the world.

These carnivores ambush their prey by slithering unseen through shadow and rock until an unsuspecting fish, octopus or crab happens to dart, float or amble by. The poor victim is either squashed by the moray’s strong, constrictive body or shredded up its terrifying jaws.

Because they don’t have tongues, moray eels have a bizarre method of moving their prey to the back of their mouth and down their gullets. They do this with their sinister second set of teeth – their pharyngeal jaws – which can actually move up the throat to grab the morsel of food caught in their teeth. If this isn’t scary enough, once an eel bites down, they don’t release, so many divers have actually lost fingers through hand-feeding them!

Moray eels don’t have very good vision, which makes them vulnerable to sharks, barracudas and other large, underwater predators like sea snakes and groupers. Some varieties produce protective mucus which covers their bodies in toxins, which can lead to a nasty surprise for hungry predators that decide to sample a bite.

Slithery eel facts

  1. You might see the eel at St Andrew’s Aquarium open and close its mouth over and over. Though it might look threatening, it’s actually to flush water over its gills, and important for respiration!
  2. Unlike many fish, moray eels can swim in reverse.
  3. Little shrimps and wrasse fish live on the moray eel’s body, and eat the various parasites that crawl around on its skin.
  4. Moray eels can have black, brown, olive, green or even a fetching variety of leopard spotted skin, it all depends on their habitat.
  5. The female moray will lay up to 10,000 eggs during mating season, but many will perish in the stomachs of predators before they metamorphose into baby eels.

F is for Frogs

Frogs are all over the place, they are native to every continent of the world, thriving in most places which isn’t dry desert or frozen ice. On top of that frogs are everywhere, in the water (fresh, not salt), on the ground, underground, in the trees, so frogs even fly through the air but that is usually when they jump out of the tree.

Frogs are amphibians, which comes from the Ancient Greeks meaning something which can live in both the water and on land, but doesn’t have fur like mammals, or scales like reptiles, or hard shells like crustaceans. Most frogs start as an egg which hatches into a tadpole in lakes, before growing into a frog and leaving, but a few frogs skip this and give birth to babies.

Frogs are famous for hopping around and most frogs have quite large back legs, but small front legs. This is because most of the muscles in a frog’s legs evolved to extend its leg, while only a small few focus on bringing it back to the start. This is to help a frog escape predators and with a sticky grip means a frog can jump from plant to plant and getting away from hungry spiders and snakes.

Say hi to our Yellow-Banded Poison Dart Frog:

This frog is very common in the Northern tip of the Amazon rainforest and can be recognized by its distinctive black and yellow patterned skin. The frog is also very poisonous! It secretes poison through its skin and produces this poison by eating an insect, but scientists are unsure which bug has this effect. Amazonian tribes would dip and rub large thorns into and against the frogs skin to make them poisonous, which they then used to hunt and catch other animals.

Alias: Arrow Dart Frog, Dart Frog,

Size: 1.5cm – 5.5cm

Appearance: Black with yellow blotches

Spot me: Near water and in the trees of Venezuela, North Brazil and West Guyana

Interesting facts

  • Frogs’ tongues are attached to the front of their mouths, unlike humans which are at the back. A frog snaps open its mouth to throw its tongue at its prey.
  • A frog’s tongue can travel up to 13mph, but because it only travels short distances it looks a lot faster.
  • The Australian rocket frog can jump over 2 metres, more than 50 times its own size.
  • Frogs and toads are actually the same species, except we just call them different names. Frogs live everywhere and tend to be small with smooth, wet skin, while toads like to stay on land and have rough, dry warty skin.
  • Frogs are the only animal to ‘croak’.

H is for Humboldt penguin…

Our Humboldt penguins are a vulnerable penguin species native to South America. They have a black back and a white front, as well as a distinctive band of black across their chest and streaks of white down their sides. These penguins live on rocky coasts along the West Coast of South America, mainly Chile and Peru, but can be found further North in Colombia and Ecuador. However, these birds are not known to settle in areas further North of mid-Peru, instead they hunt for food and return to their nests in the South.

Penguins are flightless birds, with their wings evolving into effective flippers, allowing them to be extremely agile underwater. Penguins, despite appearing to have very smooth skin actually have a thick layer of feathers which helps to keep them warm while they hunt underwater. These, like all penguins, feed on small fish, squid and krill, which they catch by diving underwater and catch using their vision specially designed for seeing underwater.

But the penguins are in danger of becoming dinner themselves, as they are on the menu for leopard seals and orcas. On a brighter side penguins have no natural land predators in Antarctica, as polar bears are only found in the Northern hemisphere, but the unlucky Humboldt penguin still has to keep an eye out for snakes and other birds which will steal it’s egg.

Say hi to Andy and the family:

Our Humboldts were named by the public in our competition after Andy Murray and the rest of his family. We’re also the only place in Scotland where you can see penguins like Andy, Kim, Judy and Shirley swimming around, with our underwater viewing window.

We have a penguin talk every day at 2pm, plus you can book the opportunity to feed the rascals and get to know them up close. You can even adopt one of them!

Alias: Chilean penguin, pantranca

Size: 56-70cm tall

Appearance: Quite short with a black back and a white stomach, with splashes of white around the head and down the sides.

Spot me: the coasts of Chile and Peru in South America

Interesting facts:

  • The Humboldt’s black and white feathers are actually clever camouflage to hide it from predators, while it swims looking for food.
  • The white is hard to see from below as the sun shines on the surface, while the black is hard to see from above, as the deeper you go in the ocean, the darker it gets.
  • Penguins keep their balance on land by using their short tail.
  • Penguins mainly waddle to where they need to be but they also slide across ice on their stomach, or hop with both feet if they’re in a rush.
  • Penguins are not afraid of humans, because they have no natural land predators. Visitors to the Antarctic cannot go closer than 3 meters to a penguin, but a penguin is allowed to walk right up to a human.
  • Penguins can drink and filter salt water.

I is for Iguana…

Iguanas are highly adaptable lizards, characterized by their long thin tails and spines along their back. They are mainly herbivores, but have been noted to eat things such as eggs, insects and rodents when they need to. Iguanas are also talented climbers and swimmers, making most environments suitable for them to escape potential predators. There lizards are found all over the world, but are concentrated in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Say hi to our Green Iguanas

Our two green iguanas are the more common of the iguana species found in South America, the others being the larger Black iguana, in Central America, alongside the Rock and Lesser Antillean iguanas – which are only found on islands in the Caribbean. The Green iguana, however, can be found right across South America and is famous for its bright green scales and relaxed approach to life. There are even so many of the lizards in places like Puerto Rico that they are considered pests, but a lot of people think they make good pets, but they need a lot of looking after.

Alias: Common iguana, American iguana

Size: Usually measure around 1.5 meters (including the tail) but can reach over 2 meters in length

Appearance: Bright green with flashes of red and yellow

Spot me: From Paraguay right up to Mexico and the Caribbean

Interesting facts

  • So many people in the USA have found it too hard to look after their pet iguanas, and released them into the wild, that there are wild populations in places like South Florida and Hawaii.
  • Iguanas have a third eye called the parietal eye, which can only detect how bright it is.
  • Iguanas have excellent eyesight and use it to navigate the rainforest and find food, but it is really bad in low light.
  • Iguanas can lose/detach their tail and grow a new one.
  • Iguanas invaded the island of Antigua after a few were swept onto the island by a hurricane.

R is for the Reef

Welcome to The Reef

Our ambition is to provide the most amazing underwater experience in Scotland and over the past few Winters, our team have been working tirelessly to make sure our aquarium is the best!

Last year we developed our Great British Shark & Ray tank (beside the Meerkats), completely refurbished our Cold Water Zone, installed an incredible Python display (to house our enormous 15ft Albino Burmese Python) and a crawl-in tank, which gives visitors a 360-degree view of over 200 clown fish…yes, we were very busy!

This year, we continued our redevelopment project and have created The Reef, a spectacular showcase of themed tanks holding 15 different species of tropical and marine fish. They include Green and Leopard Moray Eels, Pufferfish, Lionfish, Clownfish and Seahorses spread over five brand new exhibits located at the end of the visitor tour.

The Reef truly is a labour of love as our team have hand built all of the new tanks themselves, including a massive 5,500 litre tank…it’s so big we attempted to find a mermaid to go in it, but unfortunately we have been unsuccessful as of yet!

We have invested approximately £30,000 on The Reef as part of a four-month winter refurbishment, bringing in leading European aquarium company Aquarium Technology Ltd to reproduce the look of tropical waters using replica corals and imitation rocks, with displays that create the feel of walking through a reef.

The Reef really does bring the tropics to St. Andrews and the Fife coast, and we can’t wait to show off our bigger, better collection of tropical and marine life to visitors. It will not only reel our visitors in but it’s a fabulous experience for them to end their visit on.

We are very proud of The Reef and believe the tanks are among the most impressive in the UK…we can’t wait for our visitors to explore The Reef and take a walk through warmer waters.

12 fishy facts for back to school, with Dory & Nemo

Many kids headed back to school in the next few weeks will no doubt have their heads full of the hit film Finding Dory.

The animated feature has been topping box offices in the UK and Ireland, with families flocking to see the long-awaited sequel to Finding Nemo. But while everyone knows Dory, not many know that she can go by a string of different names, among them Regal Blue Tang, Surgeonfish and Doctorfish. And did you know that it’s a myth that fish have memory problems like Dory does?

These 12 facts are designed to give kids, parents and their teachers a bit of schooling (geddit?) in our finned friends. And they’re also aimed at making that summer-to-school transition just a little bit easier.

12 Fishy Facts about Regal Blue Tangs and Clownfish, aka Dory and Nemo:

  1. The Regal Blue Tang’s scientific name is Paracanthurus Hepatus, although it also goes by many different names, among them Pacific Blue Tang, Hippo Tang, Surgeonfish, Doctorfish and Letter Six Fish. Could you imagine having that many different names? You would never know when your teacher was calling you!
  2. Dory has got herself into plenty of scrapes, including being swallowed by a whale and a near miss with a crowd of sharks. But eating Dory or any of her ‘school’ pals would be a bad move. The Regal Blue Tang has a poisonous flesh and eating it could cause fish poisoning called ciguatera.  It isn’t seriously harmful to humans but it will definitely have you feeling icky.
  3. When they are babies the Regal Blue Tangs are not blue at all. They are born yellow with blue spots by their eyes and blue tips on their fins. As they mature they change colour into their adult form –  just like the ones at St Andrews Aquarium, and the film!
  4. Regal Blue Tangs have scalpel-like spines along the top and bottom of their body (ouch!).  These can be used as a means of self-defence against predators. It’s also the reason for one of the Tang’s aliases being Surgeonfish.
  5. Dory has amnesia, and fish in general have a reputation for having a bad memory (hence the phrase ‘a memory like a fish’). In actual fact, a number of scientific studies of fish have proven that this is a myth, and that fish can remember things for four or five months.
  6. The Regal Blue Tang is not always blue. It can adjust its colour shade from light blue to deep purple. Cool, eh? It will often change colour at night and researchers believe that’s because the Tang’s nervous system is less active at night, which will affect its colouring.
  7. The Regal Blue Tang is a sociable fish and they don’t always just hang out with their own kind either. Their schools can include several different species of Surgeonfish and Tang.
  8. When faced with a predator, Regal Blue Tangs often play dead- lying on their side and remaining motionless until the predator passes them by.
  9. The Clownfish – scientific name Amphiprioninae –  is immune to the stings of the sea anemone. It builds up this immunity by doing a sort of dance when it finds one and touches the anemone with all of its different parts of its body. This allows the Clownfish to build up a tolerance to its sting.
  10. For extra protection, the Clownfish has a layer of mucus around it. Eeeewww!
  11. Clownfish eat the parasites and clean the sea anemones and in return the sea anemone provides food scraps and helps protect them from other fish.
  12. All Clownfish are born males and have the ability to switch their sex and become the dominant female of the group. This change is irreversible. When the dominant female dies, the dominant male will then become the dominant female.