Taxonomy Part Two: Classifying Marine Life at Shedd Aquarium


Last week, Elliot and I spent a significant amount of time at the Field Museum discussing carnivores/omnivores/herbivores. We talked about fur, feathers, scales, beaks, and teeth. This week, we continued in this concept at Shedd Aquarium.

Elliot has been to Shedd many times, but this was the first time we built our visit around taxonomy. We began upstairs, where the tanks are smaller and have a more narrow focus. We saw frogs and toads and, hearkening to our recent trip to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, discussed again that they are amphibians. This was immediately contrasted with the snakes and turtles located nearby. Those, we quickly established, are reptiles.

But what about fish? I challenged Elliot to tell me how and why he knew a fish was a fish when he saw it. Pretty quickly, he decided that the dead giveaway features were gills and scales. We went straight to the Caribbean Reef feature and looked at the skates, rays, and sharks. I asked if those were fish, even though they had skin instead of scales. Elliot looked pensive for a moment, then nodded.

“They live in the water,” he said, “and they breathe with their gills.”


We moved on to the Oceanarium, where there were two new taxonomical categories to explore. We laughed at the sea otters’ adorable playing and eating for a while, and then I rather off-handedly mentioned that they had fur instead of scales, and that they were breathing air. Were they fish?

“No,” said Elliot confidently. “They’re mammals.”

What about the belugas and the dolphins? Those were quickly determined to be mammals, too – specifically ones that use blowholes to breathe their air. What about the penguins? No, Elliot assured me. Those are birds.

“Even though they can’t fly?” I asked. “Even though they spend so much time in the water?” Elliot nodded, his palms pressed to the glass as he grinned at a penguin zooming through the water before him.

“They have feathers and beaks,” he said. He was doing so well with all of this that I decided not to delve too far into the nuance of mollusks and echinoderms when Elliot explored the limpets, snails, and sea stars. It was enough, after so much brow-furrowing categorization, to simply stick our hands into the water and touch the ocean right here in Chicago.



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