Species Highlights and Gallery Tour

“¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge” features an amazing array of animals that live in Baja’s arid deserts, lush mangrove forests and vibrant coral reefs, including tropical fishes and invertebrates, plus several iconic desert animals—a first for the aquarium.

Over the multi-year run of this special exhibition, visitors might see any of nearly 100 species that will rotate through 18 live exhibits.

By gallery, here’s a peek at some of the colorful and charismatic creatures inside the aquarium’s newest special exhibition.

Introduction

From sun-soaked deserts to vibrant reefs, Baja California is a unique—and fragile—place.

Barberfish, Johnrandallia nigrirostris. A racoon-like mask characterizes the barberfish, also known as the blacknosed butterflyfish. It congregates on reefs with others of its kind, popping crustaceans, snails and other small invertebrates into its pursed mouth. Small groups of barberfish set up cleaning stations near reefs and remove parasites from larger fishes who drop by specifically for this service.

Panamic sergeant major, Abudefduf troschelii. An abundant fish in the Gulf of California, this highly territorial damselfish is white to pale silver in color with a bright yellow back and five dark bars on its side. Males turn dark metallic blue to attract females to the nesting site, then guard and aerate the fertilized eggs—up to as many as 10,000.

Rockmover wrasse, Novaculichthys taeniourus. Also known as the dragon wrasse, this striking fish feeds by flipping rocks and gobbling up the small critters hiding underneath. Adults often work in pairs to find their meals.

Flower sea urchin, Toxopneustes roseus. The unusually beautiful flower sea urchin looks like a bride’s bouquet. It’s known as a “collector urchin” because it attaches debris to itself, which might function as ballast in strong wave surges. It’s also venomous; Toxopneustes literally means “poison breath.”

Near the Edge

Baja’s coastal deserts support plants and animals that have adapted to thrive in the sun-scorched sands that border sapphire seas. But human actions threaten the future of these unique ecosystems, such as diversions of water from the Colorado River that impact already parched downstream coastal habitats.

Common chuckwalla, Sauromalus ater. This round-bellied, flat-bodied lizard is a member of the iguana family. Harmless to humans, it’s known to run from potential threats and even gulp enough air to swell its body as it wedges itself into a rock crevice. Males defend their territory with color and movement - namely push-ups, headbobbing and a gaping mouth. During winter, the chuckwalla brumates—a form of hibernation during which it may wake to drink water but doesn’t eat.

Desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii. This small, slow-moving tortoise is fortified with distinctive scutes (thickened plates) on its domed shell and stocky, scaly feet with long nails. It uses its front claws to dig deep underground burrows to escape the desert heat.

Mountain kingsnake, Lampropeltis zonata agalma. This beautiful and harmless snake’s red, black and cream coloring mimics that of the venomous coral snake, which might deter predators. If that doesn’t work it can release a smelly musk. It prefers rocky areas and doesn’t stray far from its rock pile home, where it brumates (a form of hibernation) in winter. It becomes nocturnal during summer’s hottest temperatures.

At the Edge

Where Baja California’s deserts meet the Gulf of California, lush mangrove forests teem with life—and face a rising tide of threats. The ebb and flow of tides around the trees’ tangle of roots reveals a unique community thriving in these coastal mangroves.

Anemone hermit crab, Dardanus sp. Small and jewel-like, this crab carries anemones on its shell to protect itself from being eaten by predators. The crab’s mobility allows the usually immobile anemone to move around, and probably get more to eat. When moving into a larger shell, the crab also takes along its anemones, too, transferring them on to their new home.

Garden eel, Heteroconger sp. Poking out of individual burrows and forming question marks with their bodies above the sand, colonies of these big-eyed eels duck into their subterranean homes when they’re wary, and completely at night.

Green moray eel, Gymnothorax sp. This is the classic moray eel of most people’s imaginations: long, lean and green. Like the garden eel, it also prefers life in a burrow, but inside rocky crevices rather than sandy tunnels. It usually hunts at night, relying on its sense of smell to find prey. 

Golden trevally, Gnathanodon speciosus. Shiny and bright, and with a distinctive following behavior, it’s easy to identify the golden trevally among other colorful tropical fishes. Bright yellow as juveniles, and gold and silver as adults, this species uses its protractile (extendable) jaws to suck out prey from sand or reef.

Pacific seahorse, Hippocampus ingens. One of the largest known species of seahorse, Pacific seahorses can grow to a foot tall. It’s the only seahorse found off the California coast, with a range from San Diego Bay to Peru. It’s a “vulnerable” threatened species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Over the Edge

The reefs of Baja California teem with life where the Pacific Ocean meets the Gulf of California. Cabo Pulmo National Park, one of the oldest and richest reefs in the Gulf, is home to over 100 species of invertebrates and several hundred species of fishes, and its beaches are a nesting area for olive ridley sea turtles.

Bluespotted jawfish, Opistognathus rosenblatti. The bluespotted jawfish is both beautiful and has an interesting personality. This vibrant, sherbet-colored fish keeps busy digging, building and remodeling its den, using its mouth to shovel and arrange sand and bits of coral. Then it hovers near its home looking for predators and prey— preferably from a 360-degree viewpoint where it use to advantage its big eyes and quick movements.

Panamic fanged blenny, Ophioblennius steindachneri. This streamlined fish does indeed have “fangs” — elongated canine teeth its uses for defense. It large eyes and sharp profile contribute to its nickname as the horsefaced blenny.

Staghorn hermit crab, Manucomplanus varians. What appears to be a crab wearing antlers on its back is actually a weird but wonderful symbiotic relationship. The crab makes its home in a staghorn hydrocoral, Janaria mirabilis, whose stinging cells offer its host protection. In return, the usually sessile hydrocoral gets to move around and filter feed on plankton as the mobile crab forages on the seafloor.

Lookdown, Selene sp. Easily recognizable by its super-slender silhouette and steep profile, this pelagic fish also has an exaggerated dorsal fin. The slim silver fish confuses predators by facing toward them and almost disappearing.

Cortez rainbow wrasse, Thalassoma lucasanum & Sunset wrasse, Thalassoma grammaticum. Wrasses are usually the most abundant and conspicuous members of coral reef communities. Tropical wrasses like these two striking beauties are distinguished by their brilliant coloring.

Balloonfish, Diodon holocanthus. With its big eyes, smiley mouth and ability to balloon into a spiky ball, this is the most well-known pufferfish in the world. Its fused teeth are beak-like, which allow it to crack open crustaceans and satisfy its huge appetite.