As a child, Laurel Johnson called the aquarium in her Springfield home and another across town at her Granny’s house “Fish TV.”
When she asked to watch it, either her mother, Kim Jackson, or Granny, the late Evelyn Heil, would turn on the light in their aquariums, and the child would be tuned in for hours.
Now 31 and a marine biologist at the Newport Aquarium, the 2002 North High School graduate remains fascinated by underwater and particularly marine life with a mature awareness still clearly buoyed by a childlike enthusiasm.
“It’s as close to an alien world as most of us will ever see,” Johnson said. “There’s a sense of wonder in it.”
Johnson played a part in sharing that world with a new generation of children by being on the team that designed and built the Newport Aquarium’s newest permanent exhibit, “Seahorses: Unbridled Fun.”
Compared to her old Fish TV, the displays in the exhibit are like widescreen models designed with two things in mind: The experience of the young visitors whose attitudes will shape the future of animal conservation, and the health in captivity of the creatures that, although fishes, are, in some regards, off the scales.
Horses of a different color
Equipped with gills and fins like other fish, seahorses and their tube fish and snout fish relatives in the syngnathid family have no scales.
Instead, their innards are contained in skin stretched over their bony skeletal plates. The only fishes with necks, seahorses’ eyes move independently of one another in lizard-like fashion, and instead of biting or snaring their meals, “they will slurp up their prey,” Johnson said. “They are a super miniature predator.”
As if they needed another unusual characteristic, seahorses have one: male pregnancy.
After a courtship dance, female seahorses deposit their eggs in the male’s front pouch, Johnson explained.
“He nourishes them and osmo-regulates their salt balance” during gestation.
As a dramatic video on an actual TV shows, the male seahorse then shoots the miniature, fully formed fry out into the water like a rapid-fire BB gun.
Grannie and Mr. Weigel
In her own days as a small fry, other forces propelled Johnson toward her current career.
One was her grannie, for whom Johnson’s 18-month daughter, Evelyn, is named, and whose maiden name, Warren, is her 5-year-old son, Cailen’s, middle name “She was just so interested in nature that it made it interesting for me. We talked about the biology and the physiology of animals and things like that.”
Johnson’s mother recalls that at age 3, Laurel borrowed white blouses to serve as lab coats, asked for a microscope, and “would spend hours studying and stalking all kinds of critters, from ants to turtles, in our garden.”
Visits to a friend’s house provided access to a creek with its mix of fish, crawdads and other wildlife, and there were always injured specimens being brought home and to Granny’s place to recover before release.
Another major influence was North High biology teacher Tom Weigel.
“I thought he knew everything, and I wanted to be just like him,” she said.
She remembers taking an orphan baby bird to him for nursing, and he allowed her to care for it on his classroom.
That he was a character didn’t hurt either.
Schooling and beyond
After high school, Johnson began at Urbana University, then soon transferred to Texas A&M for its highly regarded marine biology program.
Following graduation in 2006, she spent a year in wildlife education, moved to a job in animal husbandry at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas, then to the Indianapolis Zoo and 2011.
Johnson said she “came back home” to her current job in 2013.
“The Newport Aquarium was the first aquarium I visited, while still in high school. The experience “really cemented for me that marine biology was the path I wanted to pursue.”
When she arrived at the Newport, the next major step on her career path was becoming the keeper of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ studbook on the Big Bellied Seahorse.
The work involved collecting data on the genetic lineages of all such seahorses in captivity at North American zoos and aquariums.
With that information, she helps to manage the transfer of newly born fry from one institution to another to lessen the amount of inbreeding, with an important end in mind.
Captive collections “serve as a genetic ark for species that may be facing threats in the world,” she explained. “A healthy population has to be genetically diverse.”
On the way to collecting genetic data, she contacted people around the continent who care for those populations. She assembled a population inventory, recorded best practices for keeping them in captivity and began collecting the latest scientific information about the species and its status in the wild.
A Studbook is a one-stop shop for those interested in information about managing the species.
Johnson’s work furthered the case for protecting a species which was considered “data deficient,” the data being crucial to qualifying it for protection under international agreements.
Because the Big Bellied seahorse’s natural habitat is the cold coastal waters of Australia and New Zealand, she said, global warming is a threat.
Because it is a visual hunter, coastal erosion and runoff and even the accumulation of sediments pose problems, as can the sale of dried seahorses in gift shops and the use of seahorses in traditional Eastern medicine.
That the Big Bellied Seahorse and its kin can be difficult to maintain in captivity made the project the sort of professional challenge she likes.
At Newport, Johnson also has been working to reduce captivity stress on the seahorse relatives including the weedy sea dragon – a species whose bodies have developed leaf-like feathers that resemble the plants among which they live.
She has taught them to move toward a stick with what looks like a red lollipop on the end so they can be observed daily without going through the stress capture in a net.
Johnson designed the tank the same sea dragons are displayed to provide ample room for their complex courtship dance that, if interrupted, must start all over again, an obvious obstacle to mating, and thus, propagation of the species in captivity.
Tuned in to the future
Although Johnson calls the work being done behind the scenes in zoos and aquariums “the future of animal conservation,” she does not underestimate what happens each day when the doors open to the public.
“We are here to connect the public with these animals,” she said. “People will work hardest to preserve the animals they have an emotional connection to.”
Perhaps no one knows better than the young woman who made that connection watching “Fish TV.”