Our Polynesian Reef will transport you to an ocean paradise with a myriad of fish and flashy colors. 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! A green moray eel swims 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 its 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 suffer 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 EcoZone exhibit), the corals are grown from small polyps. This enables us to take fewer polyps from the ocean and grow coral in safe, controlled environments. However, our Polynesian Reef 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 have fish that coexist nicely with specific types of corals.
Coral thrives in shallow waters where sunlight can reach their polyps, which are the individual animals that makeup 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 and 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 various 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 directly result from human activity, which is a massive 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.
Standing out among the schools of brightly colored fish is the humphead wrasse. This beautiful fish is a tremendous privilege to care for as it is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). We hope that bringing its beauty to Oklahoma will continue to inspire conservation by all who see them.
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 prominent 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 possess a forehead hump because the hump develops from an early age, and all humphead wrasse are born female. The females can later transition to males, but not all individuals will transition.
Since humphead wrasse lives up to 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.
- The green moray eel gets its name from its color, but the skin is brown. They only appear green because they are covered in 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 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!