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For these elderly sea creatures, age is just a number

For these elderly sea creatures, age is merely a number
Posted at 11:39 AM, Mar 10, 2023

For Dr. Charlie Innis, getting his patient Roast Beef to sit still is a lot like getting a child to cooperate at a pediatrician's office.

Only this African Penguin is far from a juvenile — he's 24 years old and is living at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

"The older ones, we're looking for things like cataracts in their eyes," Dr. Innis said.

Roast Beef is living much longer than his counterparts in the wild, something that's becoming a common theme at the aquarium.

Roast Beef's friend Beach Donkey, another penguin here, recently went viral after being given custom shoes for a condition called pododermatitis, or bumblefoot. The 24-year-old now roams the halls freely with little pain.

Because of how long Myrtle is living, she's helping give critical data to scientists rehabilitating sea turtles in the outside world. In recent years, the New England Aquarium has helped develop a non-invasive surgical technique now being used by researchers in the wild to see if turtles have ingested anything harmful.

"If we do something in here that works, we can communicate that to our colleagues and maybe it'll help out somewhere else," Dr. Iniss said.

Much like elder care for humans, caring for geriatric animals is an evolving process, and sometimes it means end-of-life care.

But as our climate changes and food sources become scarcer, Eric Fox, who works with the facility's penguins, says the wild is becoming less wild. That is making the work to care for endangered species both inside and outside the aquarium more critical than ever.

"It shows the wild places in our world aren't the most optimal places at times, because of human-related impacts. We're learning if the conditions are optimal, if they have everything they need, they can live to these ages," Fox said.

Researchers at the aquarium are seeing the impacts good health care can have on animals' life expectancy.

Many of these geriatric sea creatures have medical records dating back to the day they were born. Not only does that help caretakers here, but it also helps researchers out in the wild. Oftentimes it gives them baseline blood levels or health stats to work with.

"We're drawing awareness for the public," said Michael O'Neill, who oversees the aquarium's 200,000 gallon giant ocean tank.

The giant ocean tank has been a fixture at the aquarium since it first opened in 1969. It's home to fish born last week and sea turtles like Myrtle. Staff at the aquarium believe Myrtle is between 70 and 80 years old.

Over the years, they've learned that like humans, Myrtle's habits change and evolve. She recently gave up Brussels sprouts for romaine lettuce.

"We want to make sure as an animal gets older they are exhibiting all the characteristics they would in the wild," O'Neill explained.