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What’s Under New York Harbor?

By Heather Flanagan
November 29, 2016

Oyster toadfish are frequent visitors to BOP’s Oyster Restoration Stations!

One of the best parts of an Oyster Restoration Station (ORS) monitoring expedition is that the mysterious murky world of New York Harbor becomes visible and tangible.  Even without pollution, our naturally sediment-laden waterways wouldn’t be crystal clear, so observers at the water’s edge have to look very closely to see any life at all.  When BOP students investigate the mobile trap and settlement tiles of their ORS, they encounter lots of unfamiliar creatures, even just clinging to the cage itself (the one below is covered in sea squirts and tunicates):


An Oyster Restoration Station is the entire structure- the settlement tiles and mobile trap are pieces of the ORS (though it’s difficult to see much at all under those tunicates!).

At a recent Billion Oyster Project Curriculum and Community Enterprise for Restoration Science (BOP-CCERS) professional development, “Creatures at The River Project,” TRP Education Programs Coordinator Eli Caref and BOP Curriculum Specialists Ann Fraioli and Annie Lederberg guided BOP Teacher Fellows through an exploration of New York Harbor organisms and how to help students classify them.  The River Project (TRP) is a marine science field station on a pier above the Hudson River.  Via a system of pipes, TRP pumps actual river water through its tanks at all times, allowing visitors a glimpse of our urban estuary and its inhabitants.  Each year, they catch fish and other organisms in the spring and release them in the fall, and as a partner organization in BOP-CCERS, they’re developing BOP-related exhibits and curriculum, as well as providing trainings to Teacher Fellows.  (Teachers can bring their classes to TRP for a field trip where students get to handle live local aquatic species- book now for spring!)


TRP Education Programs Coordinator Eli Caref.

The evening started with a scavenger hunt that partnered teachers up to search for creatures all over TRP, followed up by a discussion of the questions they had, the questions they thought their students might have, and their thoughts on how they could connect the activity to a research question.  Eli gave teachers the opportunity to look closely at different species by placing organisms in jars and tubs of varying sizes on tables in addition to the larger tanks.  For teachers with an oyster aquarium in their classroom that they’ve supplemented with organisms from their mobile traps, a modified version of this activity could work nicely!

Next, the group discussed what ways students could break up the creatures into categories, as an entry point to discussing two ways organisms are identified- based off genetics and off of their anatomy.  After some discussion, teachers matched pictures of New York Harbor organisms to the correct phylum (another activity that could work well with students!).  Later on, teachers used a dichotomous key (an older identification tool that pairs mutually exclusive traits and asks the investigator to choose between them until they successfully narrow down what organism they’re seeing) to identify a fictional fish.  (Contact The River Project if you’re interested in the lesson they’ve developed to teach students how to use a dichotomous key!)

The fictional fish from the dichotomous key.

The fictional fish from the dichotomous key.

So what are some of the creatures you might you expect to encounter?


This phylum of organisms with backbones contains fish and, surprisingly, tunicates!  Tunicates are considered “invertebrate chordates” because they have a backbone in their larval stage that they lose as adults.


Blackfish, at varying ages, sizes, and colors.  Eli noted that color can be misleading, as “animals can lighten within minutes” and animals are darker at the bottom, so you might see a real range.  Here’s Ann Fraioli with a young, small blackfish caught in a mobile trap at Erie Basin Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn:


…and here are two views of a larger but still juvenile blackfish that teachers got to investigate closely during the dichotomous key activity:



Students likely won’t encounter older blackfish of this size at their ORS, but they can visit them on a field trip to TRP:


Lined sea horses.  They’re very slow moving and prefer to cling to one spot- can you spot the sea horse in the clip below?


Here’s a closer view of a lined sea horse from a Brooklyn Bridge Park ORS (video courtesy of BOP Teacher Fellow Rachelle Travis of Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts):


Tunicate colonies.  Tunicates come in multiple colors and shapes- some are circular and orange, some have star shapes, and some are the round, grape-like “sea squirts” that very commonly encrust Oyster Restoration Stations.  Here are tunicates at TRP:


…and here’s a closer look from the settlement tiles of an ORS at Brooklyn Bridge Park:


…and of course, the oyster toadfish!

Here’s a young oyster toadfish from an Erie Basin ORS (on right, with a blackfish on the left):


…and here’s one of the older, larger oyster toadfish from the top of the post, at TRP:



This phylum includes species students are very likely to encounter, like mud crabs and grass shrimp, as well as smaller, more difficult to spot arthropods like amphipods and isopods that students might catch in sieves.


Grass shrimp:


Mud crab from a Governors Island ORS:


Shore crabs:





Cnidaria includes jellyfish, anemones, and hydroids.  Cnidarians have stinging cells, although the some, like the ones on hydroids, won’t hurt humans.


Anemones look like this under water:


…and blobs out of the water:



Porifera include sponges like this red beard sponge:



Here’s another view of a red beard sponge encrusting an oyster shell:



Annelida are the segmented worms…


…like this blood worm:



Bryozoans are colonial organisms that form mat-like encrustations.


Remember the tunicate picture from earlier?  It also has some lacy crust bryozoans at the top:


And of course, the phylum we’re all here for: Mollusca!  Mollusks include both oysters and their predators, the oyster drill, along with mud dog whelks and mussels.


The River Project also has an amazing collection of specimens in jars, including our favorite- Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster!


A huge thanks to Eli Caref and The River Project for hosting such a fantastic event!  We’ve got more great professional developments coming up, including “Build Your Classroom Library” on November 29, the December BOP-CCERS Teacher Fellowship meeting on December 13th, and Statistics for Teachers- Part 1 and Part 2 in January.  We hope you’ll join us!  If you’d like to read more about BOP Schools, keep checking back on the Billion Oyster Project blog for more posts, follow the BOP-CCERS Tumblr, and sign up for our newsletter!