5:48 PM EDT, June 12, 2013
At the Shedd Aquarium these days, there's almost as much touching going on as at a massage therapist's spa or an Apple store.
Last month, the marine animal showcase by the lake introduced Stingray Touch, a place for warm-weather visitors to pet de-barbed, ocean-going bottom-feeders in an outdoor pool.
This week, the Shedd unveiled Sturgeon Touch, an indoor freshwater pool for fondling the giant, ancient, cartilaginous fish that dwell in the Great Lakes and occasionally make sport fishermen very happy.
Not on deck: Piranha Prod, Snapping Turtle Stroke or Lamprey Tickle.
The sturgeon pool is the highlight of a made-over exhibit area, the former "Local Waters" exhibit reborn as "At Home on the Great Lakes."
Located in one of the armlike galleries of the original Shedd building, it's an impressive attempt to draw visitors' attention away from aquarium species that flash bright colors or jump on command and toward those that may seem mundane but, as our neighbors, have direct impact on life in the Chicago area. And part of the way this is accomplished is through still more touch: Most of the information about the animals in the reworked gallery is on iPads. To learn about a fathead minnow or a Johnny darter, touch its digital icon, then swipe through a few screens.
The Sturgeon Touch pool sits in the middle of the exhibit, between the rows of postcard tanks mounted in the walls. It's noisy, with a Shedd worker on a microphone calling attention to it, policing the artificial pond and reminding people to rinse their hands before executing the recommended two-finger touch on the back of the two or three slow-moving, roughly 4-foot-long fish.
The structure also clogs traffic in an already crowded museum. But it's well worth it to be able to do more than just look at the animals. As for the actual touch, the sturgeon feels like, well, a fish, but one that has an impressive resume (co-existed with dinosaurs; can grow to 9 feet long) and a physical presence far beyond any dockside perch or Whole Foods tilapia you may have handled.
Reaching into a tank and stroking such a big, live fish is an unexpected bonus on an aquarium day, and one that doesn't require a pre-visit search under the couch cushions. A rarity in modern museum improvements, it is available for no upcharge to the basic admission.
"The animals are very sociable," said senior aquarist Kurt Hettiger, "and they seem to enjoy it a bit" — enjoyment being determined by their continuing to swim around without freaking out.
In the tanks around the perimeter — some of them freshened up too — the 60-plus Great Lakes species seem newly interesting. The alligator snapping turtle sits almost motionless in its tank, spiny shell at an angle, head up, powerful jaws open, prompting one visitor this week to say to his buddy, "They wouldn't put a fake animal in there. Look at the tongue move, dude. That's real."
The Asian carp, including three whoppers found last year in a Humboldt Park lagoon, make you contemplate how very invasive this species could be, if it were to enter the lakes and, with its size and voracious appetite, start competing with other filter feeders. The iPad, meanwhile, tells you those hulking fish are in the minnow family.
A new addition, the sea lampreys, shows off the genuinely creepy, mortally adhesive mouth of the Great Lakes invader of older vintage — Invasive Species Classic, if you will. "Sucks the life out of their prey," one impressed teenager read aloud to his compatriots.
The updated exhibit is meant to highlight an increased Shedd focus on the lakes, especially, in recent years, in research.
"I get to go out and get muddy a lot more," Hettiger said with enthusiasm.
Partnering with other scientific and conservation organizations, Shedd biologists are, among other things, helping restore habitats and studying migration patterns of the economically and ecologically valuable whitefish.
And they take a regular census of animals found in Lake Michigan, a demonstration of which senior research biologist Phil Willink conducted Tuesday, before the media preview event for "At Home on the Great Lakes."
Before any crowds hit 12th Street Beach, just south of the Adler Planetarium, Willink and a couple of reporters in waders dragged a 15-foot seine, a weighted net with poles on either end to control it, across the lake bed.
Lesson 1: Retain your day jobs, reporters, but if you don't, the logical next step is probably not a move to a rural fishing village. Lesson 2: This is no way to snag, say, a sturgeon.
Willink is doing a population assessment of the banded killfish, which isn't as exciting a species as it sounds but is classified as threatened. All we got, in half a dozen drags, were a couple of rocks, some algae, a feather and several dozen shiners, finger-sized fish commonly used as bait to catch bigger ones.
But the point was made: To do good lake science, "you need real solid data, and that starts off with what we're doing right here," Willink said.
"What I'm surprised we didn't catch, but I know are here," he said, "are gobys," another invasive species referred to, back at the Great Lakes exhibit, as "frog-faced."
In front of the Goby tank, human-faced executive vice president Roger Germann explained that revamping the exhibit and putting Sturgeon Touch there is a "very deliberate" plan to make visitors pay more attention to what's nearby.
"It's easy to walk into the Wild Reef exhibit and go, 'Look at the shark. Look at Nemo,'" Germann said. The Great Lakes, with "a bunch of brown and silver fish," need more help.
"At Home on the Great Lakes" does that job two ways: by providing an attractive setting to showcase species that might be taken for granted and by demonstrating, perhaps even inspiring, ways people can contribute to the continued viability of a precious resource.
'At Home on the Great Lakes'
When: Daily during aquarium hours
Where: Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: Included with general admission, $8 adults; 312-939-2438 or sheddaquarium.org
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