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The Shedd Aquarium Diet

Ever wonder what the 32,000 critters at the Shedd eat? Feast your eyes.

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The Shedd Aquarium Diet

Ever wonder what the 32,000 critters at the Shedd eat? Feast your eyes.


Sea Dragon

Unlike seahorses (which are related), these foot-and-a-half-long delicate fish swim parallel, not perpendicular, to the surface and don’t use their tails to grab onto things.

WHAT THEY EAT Live mysis — shrimp around the length of a human fingernail; 150 in a day, split into two feedings. “It’s like their chocolate,” says senior aquarist Erika Moss. “They will eat other things, too, but it has to look like a shrimp for them to want to eat it.”

HOW THEY EAT The Shedd cultures its own mysis (above, on the right side of the plate), infusing the crustaceans with vitamins and algae, which gives them a rich color. This mixture (on left) is dropped into the tank and the sea dragons swim toward it as it separates in the water, then arch their heads up and bend their snouts down to suck the food up; it’s a little like someone playing a trumpet. “There are a lot of aquarists who talk about [their sea dragons] having ‘weak snick,’ which is when they try to eat but can’t close their mouths fast enough to keep food inside,” Moss says. “We don’t have it, and I believe it’s because we culture our own mysis and it’s disease-free.”



The Shedd has 33 of them, representing two species: Magellanics, which you can tell by the black band around their bellies, and southern rockhoppers, which have yellow plumage on their heads “like pigtails,” says Nikki Mason, a senior trainer.

WHAT THEY EAT A mixture of herring and capelin (the most nutrient-rich and, currently, most sustainable fish), twice a day. The amount changes seasonally, since penguins are self-regulating eaters, meaning they stop when they get full, like humans do. “Some days they might eat five fish, other days, 50,” Mason says. During molting season (September to October), new feathers are pushing the old ones out, a taxing process that requires a lot of energy. So a penguin will double its intake of fish, to about one to two pounds daily.

HOW THEY EAT The trainers feed the penguins by hand. “They have their own little preferences,” says Mason. “Some like to eat the fish headfirst. Some like to eat it tail-first. Some like to kind of take it from us, then flip it around a little bit before they eat it.”



These scaly giants are the largest freshwater bony fish in the world, maxing out at more than 10 feet long and 400 pounds. The Shedd’s three are not that big. Yet. They are still growing.

WHAT THEY EAT Restaurant-grade sushi. The Shedd sources a mix of the most nutritious seafood, including smelt, shrimp, capelin, herring, and mackerel. It also feeds the arapaimas a “gel diet” — blocks of fish and plant material packed with nutrients.

HOW THEY EAT An arapaima will creep below animals near the surface, then use its upturned mouth to vacuum up its prey and its bony tongue to crush it. At the Shedd, workers harnessed to a walkway above the tank lower the food in by hand. Arapaimas aren’t always the most patient. “One time I sat down to start feeding them and one just snapped at a piece of food and basically caused a tsunami,” says senior aquarist Evan Kinn. “I got absolutely drenched in front of about 100 people. I just looked at them like: Well, that’s my life. ”


Red-Tailed Hawk

What is the Shedd doing with four hawks? “The oceanarium is supposed to represent the Pacific Northwest,” explains Madelynn Hettiger, manager of marine mammals. “We wanted to include more species so that our visitors could learn even more about the animals that reside there and their environments.” Five of the six birds of prey at the Shedd are rescues — one, for example, was hit by a car.

WHAT THEY EAT Mice and chicks (with the occasional baby quail), approximately four to eight times a day. That’s a typical diet for a hawk in the wild, and it’s high in nutrition. The Shedd sources these animals from an Indiana-based company called Rodent Pro, which prides itself on raising raptor food humanely.

HOW THEY EAT The staff places the prey in front of the birds on a tree log, and they eat it whole. Complicating matters: The hawks’ bathroom schedules are unpredictable. “There was a presentation we did many moons ago where our hawks made a very grand entrance coming down the stairs,” says Hettiger. “Tahoma, a 23-year-old red-tailed hawk, decided to [poop] right in the audience pit and hit a young child. The whole audience was like, ‘Gasp!’ ” All’s well that ends well: “The kid got a T-shirt and a plush animal.”


Beluga Whale

At the start of summer, the Shedd had seven belugas swimming in its gargantuan tanks. Now it has eight: On July 3, Mauyak gave birth to a calf, the first beluga birth at the aquarium in seven years. The addition means the Shedd will face an even bigger dining tab: A beluga, which gets as long as 16 feet and weighs as much as 3,000 pounds, consumes around 30 to 50 pounds of food daily.

WHAT THEY EAT A mix of herring, capelin, and squid — the herring for its high fat content, and the capelin and squid “because they have a lot of water,” says senior trainer Megan Vens-Policky. Yes, even underwater animals need to stay hydrated.

HOW THEY EAT When the trainers approach the edge of the tanks, the belugas know it’s time to eat (which happens five to eight times a day). They pop their heads above the surface and open their mouths, and the trainers toss the chow right in (sometimes, for mental stimulation, they put it in squeeze toys). Keep in mind belugas have some peculiar dining habits. “Sometimes they’ll eat it all in one gulp. Other times they’ll take it down to the bottom, spit it out, and pick through what they want to eat,” Vens-Policky says. “We have a couple of whales who like to hold on to their fish in their mouths throughout their training session. When it’s over, they’ll swim away and eat it.”


Sea Otter

Of all the creatures at the Shedd, these furry marine mammals are the biggest gourmands — and gluttons. Imagine an all-you-can-eat buffet at the world’s best seafood restaurant: That’s their daily diet. “It costs about as much to feed our sea otters as it costs to feed the whales, dolphins, sea lions, penguins, and birds of prey combined,” says Lana Gonzalez, manager of penguins and sea otters.

WHAT THEY EAT Capelin, pollock, shrimp, squid, mussels, clams, even whole crabs. Each of the Shedd’s four sea otters consumes 25 percent of its body weight per day — and weighs 45 to 70 pounds.

HOW THEY EAT A lot like we do, with their paws. The big difference is that otters will swim on their backs while they do it. Like humans, otters will peel shrimp before popping it into their mouths — and they’re way better than we are at cracking shells. “I’ve tried to open one of those whole clams before. It takes me a long time,” Gonzalez says. “They’ll literally just bang it a few times and they’re able to open it up.”


Red-Footed Tortoise

This 23-year-old South American male reptile is the only one in the Shedd, though the aquarium does have three yellow-footed females. The color-gender breakdown is coincidental: Yellow-footed tortoises are typically found in savannahs and grassy areas, while red-footed ones reside in forests.

WHAT THEY EAT A salad not all that different from what you’d order at Sweetgreen. The tortoise eats a full bowl, around the size of what you might eat for dinner at home, of leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables. The food is meant to approximate what they might find while wandering through the forest.

HOW THEY EAT Slowly, of course. The Shedd will put the tortoise right in front of the bowl and they’ll gradually consume it, typically within a day. Sometimes, the aquarium lets the animals graze from their outdoor garden, which can surprise passersby. “A few summers back,” senior aquarist Jim Watson recalls, “I was out there with four turtles, and some kids were like, ‘Dude, can I get a picture with the turtle?’”


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