Magic in the Water

The essayist, philosopher and literary naturalist Loren Eiseley has been famously quoted for saying “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water…” There is no better place to explore the magic than an aquarium.


Today’s molecular microbiology capabilities go way beyond the ability to satisfy our scientific curiosity. They enable us to better understand what the animals in our care (which today is arguably all animals on the planet) need to thrive and to be happy and healthy.


The intense interest in characterizing the microbiota of everything includes today’s oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds, bogs, streams, creeks and all their inhabitants. Just this week Nature Communications published a paper providing a snapshot of the bacterial communities found in a few dolphins and sea lions.


Still- there remain serious gaps in our knowledge of the impacts of human activity on aquatic microbiomes and the potential health implications of changes to those systems. For example anthropogenic acoustic energy pours into our oceans on a continuous basis. Potential impacts of this on charismatic megafauna has been and continues to be a focus of serious (supported by serious money) investigation. But what about the impact of oceanic acoustic disturbances on the microbiota? What might it be? We use ultrasonic scalers to remove dental plaque from our teeth. We know acoustic energy can disrupt biofilm formation. What might it be doing to the complex interrelationships of the planktonic microbes? From every perspective we examine aquatic habitats we develop new and important questions. Fortunately today we are better than ever prepared to answer these questions and to generate the right next ones to ask.


If you’d like to be involved in answering these sorts of questions – we have an opportunity for you. The Aquarium Microbiome Project based in the A. Watson Armour III Center for Animal Health and Welfare at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago Illinois, has an opening for a Postdoctoral Associate. Go here for more information. 

2 thoughts on “Magic in the Water

  1. Thanks for linking to our paper, Bill! We sequenced bacterial communities in 48 dolphins and 18 sea lions, which we hope that people will consider a bit more than “a few”! We also sampled several dolphins over a period of more than a year, and included samples from their adjacent seawater and fish they consumed.

    Here is the full citation (shame-less self-plug):
    Marine mammals harbor unique microbiotas shaped by and yet distinct from the sea – Elisabeth M. Bik et al. – Nature Communications

    1. “a few” is used here in the context of the inferred reference population. NOAA stock assessments give an idea of bottlenose dolphin populations q.v.

      And as the paper states, “Because of the small number of animals and the single late sample, we make no significance statements about this comparison.”

      Don’t get me wrong Elizabeth– great paper by a group of great folks and I am sure it will be the reference data set for many others. We simply still have many knowledge gaps in this important area of discovery.


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Bill Van Bonn

Bill Van Bonn, DVM, is the aquarium’s vice president of animal health at the Shedd Aquarium. Check out his full bio here