MUSEUM CAMPUS — If you think of Lake Michigan's underwater life as "just some brown and silver fish" that tickle your toes on the shoreline, you've got a thing or two to learn — and the Shedd Aquarium wants to teach you.
The aquarium unveiled a new permanent exhibit — "At Home on the Great Lakes" — that is unlike most of their content intended to transport visitors to exotic and foreign locales.
"We really felt that it was part of our responsibility to tell that story, bring people underwater in a sense through these exhibits, and let them actually just see what life aquatic is here in our backyard, in our own Great Lakes. I think when you go through here you realize it's not just some brown and silver fish: from otters to sea lampreys to majestic, prehistoric sturgeon, people just don't realize what's in our own backyard."
"At Home on the Great Lakes" showcases the subjects of lake-saving research that goes on behind the scenes — and behind the Shedd, on the coast of Lake Michigan at Northerly Island.
At 9 a.m. Tuesday, senior research biologist Phil Willink was knee-deep in the waters with a 15-foot weighted fishing net called a "seine." Willink was combing the shoreline looking for banded killifish, a threatened species in the area.
He turned up a handful of sand and spottail shiners. As he does "99.9 percent of the time," Willink counted and gave them a once-over before tossing them back, determining that their health and well-being seemed normal.
The animals living permanently in the new Great Lakes exhibit will contribute to lake health research more regularly. Germann said they're studied by students and scientists, both behind the scenes in their labs and on the aquarium floor, where biologists adjust their environments and water temperatures to match changes in the real lake climate.
"Every one of these animals has some connection to some research project that's ongoing," he said. "Whether it's with Illinois Department of Natural Resources, whether it's with the University of Wisconsin, whether it's with Nature Conservancy, all of these animals have some story and some connection to field research that's happening."
The old Local Waters exhibit also attracted visitors studying how better to catch its inhabitants — something Germann expects to continue in the revamped exhibit.
"Every fall and spring you'd find some fisherman who'd be hanging out over here, and they said 'We're watching the patterns of how the fish work in your exhibit,' and they were learning things," he said. "For instance, in colder water, the pike might swim a little closer to the rocks. So when they would go out and actually fish, they were getting some intel on how to catch them in the wild."
The new exhibit, the product of a total overhaul "Local Waters," includes a new projection screen that flashes through images depicting "the interconnectedness of the lakes that contain 93 percent of North America's fresh water," Germann said.
The Shedd also added its second touch experience inside, this one populated with sturgeon from the region.
Beyond helping the cause of "saving the Great Lakes and the animals within them," aquarist Eve Barrs said the new exhibit also provides a much-needed connection between the creatures that live in the lake and their neighbors — us.
"It's something that lives in our backyard as Chicagoans here in the Great Lakes, and you don't necessarily get to see it unless you are in the right place at the right time," she said. "We have a chance to introduce the people in the Midwest, and from around the world, to ... really make a connection with what lives right here, and what really needs to be protected."
The new exhibit is permanent, and access is included in general admission prices at the Shedd.