HGTC students, Ripley’s team examine aquarium rays with ultrasound

vgrooms@thesunnews.comFebruary 6, 2014 

A group of students huddled with Ripley’s Aquarium staff around a laptop on the edge of Ray Bay early Thursday morning, searching for signs of life on the small screen.

“There’s a pup!” said Ripley’s Chief Veterinarian Robert George, pointing to the image, as an ultrasound revealed the southern stingray’s pregnancy. “He’s rolling now, stretching – he’s having a good time in there.”

This is the first time students studying Diagnostic Medical Sonography, better known as the ultrasound program, at Horry Georgetown Technical College have gotten an up-close look at this kind of ultrasound – on stingrays instead of humans. Ripley’s Aquarium at Broadway at the Beach, which usually hosts hordes of vacationers, became an educational lab for future ultrasound technicians Thursday morning, and George let some of the students perform ultrasounds on the stingrays.

Caryn Atkins, HGTC’s assistant chairwoman and associate professor of diagnostic medical sonography, was in the water assisting George and said it was fun to let the class see the ultrasounds being done on the rays because it’s not something that happens every day.

“The experience shows students the wide expanse and the benefits of the technology we’re training them in, and they can see different avenues they can take,” Atkins said.

George showed the students two more pups the ray was carrying. It was one of 30 female rays needing reproductive checks that morning.

“The gestation on these girls is about five to six months,” said George, who with the help of the aquarium’s husbandry team checked 28 southerns and two spotted eagle rays. “Three were pregnant – all southerns.”

George said ultrasounds are performed on the female rays to see which ones are pregnant, to check for reproductive problems that occur in some older rays and to check rays that have been spayed at an early age, a procedure he said the aquarium has been pioneering.

The aquarium encourages the rays to reproduce and provide a surplus of animals that can be shared with other institutions, George said, but southerns can reproduce too much, which creates problems. Pups are born ready to go but must be quickly moved to a different tank, he said.

“Mothers are not maternal here,” said George, who estimated the discovered pups will be born in May. “They’d just as soon eat them as look at them.”

It took several members of the aquarium team to corral one ray at a time onto a net, which often resulted in much thrashing, sprays of water – even a tail across one person’s face – as the ray was floated to the pool’s edge. A microchip tag told them which ray was which before the wand was moved across each one’s left uterine organ, the only side these rays use, George said.

“The anatomy looks very different, of course, but the ovaries look the same,” said student Amanda Babb after observing the procedure. “The liver looked a little different, but we’re seeing the same image and getting the same feedback we would [on a human].”

George noted a variety of things during the ultrasound process, from fluid and cystic ovaries, to spinal columns and livers, which he said holds every bit of fat that is in a ray’s body. Southern rays are like rabbits, he said, calling them induced ovulaters that have an efficient system, always having a group of eggs that are ready to go whenever a male shows up to mate. One of the rays was nicknamed Fertile Myrtle, he said, because she had three litters with six pups each within 13 months.

Spotted eagle rays are just the opposite and difficult to breed in captivity, he said, and the males at the aquarium aren’t quite old enough to breed. Eagles have a 12-month gestation period, he said, and may have one pup a year.

The HGTC students are in their second semester of an 18-month program, which only accepts 10 students from about 60 applicants each year, Atkins said. The program is intensive and fast-paced, and after seven weeks, students spend two days in class, with the rest of their training in the field in a hospital or clinical setting.

Atkins said many of her students had other careers before they entered the program. Marcy Maglott, the first of the students to perform an ultrasound on a ray, said she was a marine biologist at the aquarium for 51/2 years and used to work with the animals.

“I was actually pretty excited about this,” Maglott said. “It’s always good to see what you can do [with your skills], and it’s one of those rare experiences.”

Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.

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