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After the first historical birth of five butterfly stripes in captivity in August of last year, this Brazilian aquarium is ready for more.
Almost a year after the historical birth of five butterfly rays at the Rio de Janeiro Marine Aquarium (AquaRio), biologists and veterinarians are preparing to receive another round of offspring.
In just six months – the gestational period of the Gymnura Altavela , indigenous to the Atlantic coastal waters, including those of southeastern Brazil – another group of offspring will be joined by three males and two females, the first born in captivity throughout the world, a positive signal for a species that could become extinct in the future.
Although in Brazil it is illegal to capture and sell them, fishing is one of the main threats to the butterfly rays, which can reach a wingspan of almost two meters. They are captured by artisanal fishermen to sell them or coastal trawlers by accident. The other threat to its population is pollution. Both factors have caused the species to be classified in the IUCN Red List as “vulnerable”, in view of the decline in its population. In Brazil, they are considered a critically endangered species due to intense fishing activity on their coast.
Home Sweet Home
The public saw the first rays born in captivity for the first time when the local television channel Globo filmed them at the end of last month. Marcelo Szpilman, marine biologist and CEO of AquaRio, affirms that they are well and hopes that they will soon make their debut in the public oceanic enclosure, where they will play an important role in the education of the visitors.
“You do not keep what you do not know,” he says. “The aquarium has a duty to show people threatened species and help them understand the importance of their conservation. You have to know them to keep them. “
The unprecedented births last August in AquaRio, as well as the previous gestation and the subsequent care of the five offspring, were part of a meticulous process planned by the aquarium team.
As butterfly rays are particularly sensitive to their environment, researchers had to create optimal conditions to make them feel comfortable and live the natural life they would have in the ocean.
“We wanted to make sure we had the conditions that allowed the rays to reproduce themselves,” says Szpilman. According to him, the size of the oceanic enclosure, which contains 3.5 million liters of water, the exceptional quality of the water and the stable ecosystem created by the various species of sharks, rays and fish that inhabit it are part of its success.
“Captive breeding is very important for the conservation of the species,” says Patricia Charvet, of the IUCN shark specialist group and biologist specializing in sharks and rays. “It is important because it is a sign that they are so well-maintained that they want to leave offspring.”
The birth occurred in a smaller tank inside the huge oceanic enclosure, which is generally used when divers enter to take care of the species that inhabit it. It allowed the female to remain in her habitat while the veterinarians supervised her offspring with ultrasound and helped the newborns to enter the water for the first time. As there is a high infant mortality by natural predators among the rays, they put the five young in quarantine, a measure that would keep them away from the sharks in the enclosure.
Now, with 11 months, they enjoy good health and are expected to introduce them soon in the oceanic enclosure.
Return to the open sea
For Izeni Pires Farias, biologist and professor at the Federal University of the Amazon, the births of AquaRio are not only exciting and important because they have more stripes in captivity, but also because of the possibility of reintroducing them into the sea.
“Once breeding in captivity is achieved, the next step would be the future introduction of the creatures in the wild to repopulate the affected areas,” he says.
Szpilman hopes that they can reintroduce butterfly stripes into the wild. “That is the real goal of the process,” he says, but there are still years to cross that goal because, without a larger population of female and male rays raised in captivity and without better conditions for survival in nature, it would not make much difference.
However, he is sure that they will achieve it. And if for some reason they did not succeed, he is sure that the work of the AquaRio team has helped the butterfly stripes move one step farther from extinction.
“When an animal is extinguished in nature, if there is none in captivity, in zoos or aquariums, the species will be extinct in the world,” he says. “If for some reason the butterfly ray disappears from nature, which is not improbable, at least we can cling to the biodiversity of our planet in a certain way, because it will still exist in captivity.”
Source: National Geographic