Background and Theme —The Chesapeake Bay is an estuary comprised of many different habitats. Although these habitats may appear very different in appearance, they are all interlinked and would function poorly without the others. In this gallery we explore some of these habitats and the aquatic life they support.
Open Waters of the Chesapeake—The bay can be thought of as a highway, with seasonal visitors migrating to and from the ocean to feed or spawn. You may be surprised to learn that only 10% of the bay’s fish species spend their entire lives in the estuary. A 3500 gallon aquarium exhibits some of the permanent and seasonal species.
SAV—Submerged Aquatic Vegetation beds are one of the bay’s more important habitats. These underwater plants provide critical habitat for young fish and crabs to avoid predators. Sediment and nutrient pollution have substantially reduced this habitat which in turn has led to fewer fish and crabs reaching adulthood.
Bottom Life—The bottom of the Chesapeake is a very dynamic environment that changes throughout the year. Oysters are one of the better known members of this “benthic community”. Huge oyster reefs of the past kept the water very clear due to their capacity to filter out algae. Decreasing oyster populations from overharvesting and disease have caused the bay to become much cloudier. Oyster reefs are also home to many species that use them for refuge. Be sure to look at the small oyster reef on display in the tank in order to see the diversity of life which occurs in an oyster bar.
Crabs—Take the time to see one of the Bay's more popular (and some would say, delicious) inhabitants, the Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus), up close. Notice the graphic panel to the left of the exhibit which illustrates the amazing changes in size the crabs go through as they complete their life cycle.
Salt Marsh—Salt marshes form along low lying shores of the bay and are very important components of the ecosystem as they provide food and refuge for many species of fish, mammals and birds. You may be interested to learn how the animals that depend on marsh plants for survival adapt to the changing tides and exposure to salt water.
Food Web—You may not think that photosynthesis plays a large role in the bay’s underwater ecosystem, but as with all life, the sun is the ultimate power source. Microscopic plants called phytoplankton use sunlight to grow and form the base of the food chain. The phytoplankton are eaten by microscopic animals called zooplankton and filter feeding animals, ultimately transferring the energy obtained from the sun to larger predators. Upon the death of these producers and consumers, their energy is transmitted back into the ecosystem through the work of reducers, which include bacteria, fungi, and scavengers.
Conserving the Chesapeake—Find out about the land management techniques which have been put into practice in order to ensure better water quality in the bay. Also read a newspaper article detailing the Historic Cleanup Agreement of 1987, which provides the framework for a regional effort to clean and protect the Chesapeake. You can further learn in this exhibit how citizen involvement can be helpful.
Fisherman's Island—In this tank, you will find examples of species which are found in saltier parts of the bay. Not surprisingly, composition of species changes from the headwaters of the bay to the ocean due to the changes in salinity. Due to this wide range in salinity, the Chesapeake provides a great habitat both for ocean and freshwater species.
Jellyfish—You may be surprised to learn that jellyfish are members of the plankton family, who drift helplessly along with the tides and currents. Although nobody likes them, they too are vital to the bay’s ecosystem. In fact, many oysters would not be able to survive without jellyfish, which eat one of the oyster’s predators. The oyster-jellyfish relationship is a prime example of bay life in balance. If there were no jellyfish then the oyster population would have a much more difficult time recovering. The museum grows its own jellyfish so they can be displayed year-round instead of facing seasonal restrictions!
Invisible, but Critical—Be sure to check out the microscopic life display. Without these plants and animals, the aquatic food web would be missing some vital components, which form the basis of all life in the bay. See all of the amazing animals which can be found (with a microscope) in only the tiniest drop of water!
Feature Tanks—The four small feature tanks show species which cannot be viewed in any of the larger tanks. The species displayed change periodically, but in them you can view anything from seahorses to hermit crabs, and you can learn interesting trivia about their life cycles as well.
ECO-Invaders—As humans have become more mobile, we often introduce, both by accident and design, new species to an area where a natural control does not exist. This results in an ecosystem which is out of balance, with potential for disastrous consequences. When a foreign species causes significant environmental or economic harm, it is called invasive. Over 4,500 invasive species have established reproducing populations in the United States. Of these, 15% are harmful.
Snakeheads and Other Invasive Species—View the exhibits to learn about aquatic invaders, such as the infamous snakehead, as well as the lesser-known European Green Crab. Where are these species from? Why and how were they introduced? Note that they have had an insufficient amount of time after introduction to adapt or evolve with their environment. The harm these invaders do is often centered on aggressive competition for food and living space, but they can cause many other unforeseen problems as well. Even the species which have been intentionally introduced to the ecosystem in order to solve existing problems have created problems of their own. In this exhibit, you will learn the consequences of such actions and see how they can be avoided. (In some cases, it is too late.)
Otters—One of our most popular exhibits is the River Otter Habitat. Enjoy watching our playful otters, Bubbles and Squeak, swimming, chasing each other, or romping through the sand. Otters abound in the tidal creeks and rivers of the Chesapeake, but are rarely seen because they are active primarily at dawn and dusk. During the day they rest in their dens, and when confronted quickly dart underwater and swim to a secluded area. As top predators in the food chain, they have a good life. Extremely strong for their weight, and fast swimmers thanks to their streamlined bodies and webbed feet, they easily capture fish, frogs, and snakes for food. Our otters have a slightly different diet. Besides fish, they enjoy things like shrimp, boiled eggs, carrots, peanuts, grapes and dried banana chips. At 4:00 p.m. the otters are brought in for their final meal of the day. You can then view them in their indoor habitat through the window at the end of the Estuarium.
Background and Theme – The maritime heritage of the Southern Maryland region is the story of human habitation along the Patuxent River over time. This is a story driven by geography and patterns of trade and settlement unique in the Chesapeake Bay. It tells of early settlers, individual entrepreneurs, rugged watermen, and skilled craftsmen seeking a better life for themselves and their families, and how that human interaction contributes to the constant changes in the Chesapeake Bay.
Start your stroll through history by taking a few minutes to watch the video that will introduce you to the history of life along the Patuxent River. You may also find the map of the Patuxent River watershed and the facts noted of interest.
People of the Patuxent – 12,000 years ago, the Patuxent was home to an Algonquin-speaking people who fished, hunted, and farmed in order to make a living. In this exhibit you can see some of the tools that they used, such as shark teeth as scraping tools, fish spears, axe heads, and an awl. The first contact the Pawtuxunt had with Europeans was in 1588, and by the 1670s the Algonquins of the Patuxent were either dead or had moved away, and the region’s way of life was altered drastically. Note the mural in the background and look for the artifacts that are exhibited in the case.
Colonial Connections – Captain John Smith explored and mapped the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. Smith’s observations and sketches formed the basis for his remarkable 1612 map of the bay, which served as the definitive rendering of the region for nearly a century. For colonists in the Chesapeake Bay, tobacco formed the foundation of societal and economic growth. Find out how the river was the crucial link connecting tobacco planters with English merchants. See if you can find the pig iron in this area of the exhibit. Look at the picture and see what you can learn about early colonial life along the river. Don’t miss the Highway of Commerce map at the end of this section.
Slavery on the Patuxent – Enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas on one leg of the Atlantic Triangle Trade route. The Chesapeake region became home to more than 125,000 Africans. That’s roughly one-third of all slaves shipped between the 1600s and early 1800s to British colonies and the U.S. Overall, about 12.5 million Africans crossed the Atlantic, most going to South America and the Caribbean. Nearly one in five Africans perished during the notorious Middle Passage. Over the next 200 years, Africans and native born African Americans suffered the unspeakable horrors of bondage. In the fields and elsewhere, they endured physical and emotional hardship. But enslaved people also forged family and community ties, and those networks would sustain African-American life. Even after freedom came in 1864 with Maryland’s abolition of slavery, the bonds within the African-American community remained strong.
War Comes to the Patuxent – During the War of 1812, the British wrecked havoc up and down the Patuxent River trying to disrupt the economy. They burned tobacco barns, private homes, and the Calvert County Courthouse over the summer of 1814. In this exhibit, you will learn about a local hero, Joshua Barney and his famous flotilla. When you study the mural, consider that you are looking at the battle from behind the British lines at the Americans. Take a moment to follow the movements of the Battle of St. Leonard on the large electronic map, and see how this area played a significant role in the conflict in 1814.
Sail to Steam – This section of the exhibit tells the story of a period of growing stability and gradual change along the Patuxent River. Tobacco farming remained the economic mainstay, but after 1865 seafood harvesting and processing rapidly grew in importance. And while locals continued relying on sailing craft to get their goods to market, steamboats increasingly linked the isolated communities along the Patuxent to the outside world.
In the large picture to the left of the case, what can you learn about life during this period? What are these people doing? In the case see if you can tell the difference between a sloop and a pungy and a ram – each was used for a different purpose. Look for the stories of some of the local characters like Captain Susie Brinsfield. And learn how steam engines changed life along the Patuxent. Look for models of the newer, faster steam boats, as well as the tools that were used on them, an authentic steam engine, and other memorabilia, including a telescope, maps, and photographs.
During the age of the steamboat, travelers shared space with many types of cargo, such as crates of fruits and vegetables, barrels of seafood, hogsheads of tobacco, farming implements, furniture, and even live animals. View some of the shipping crates and barrels, as well as photographs of the ships.
Tobacco – Rounding the corner you will see a large barrel called a hogs head that was used to pack transport tobacco. Tobacco was so valuable to this area that it was used for currency. In the display along the left of the aisle, you can learn how it was grown, harvested, and shipped.
Entrepreneurs on the Patuxent – Following the Civil War, there was an explosion of new ideas and new industries in this region. Suddenly outsiders were seeing profits to be made from the rich seafood available in the rivers and bay. Men like Isaac Solomon and James T. Marsh brought their energy, their entrepreneurial spirit, and their financial resources to this area, changing it forever.
Isaac Solomon – Learn more about the man the island is named for, though he didn’t stay long after he built the island’s first oyster cannery in 1865. Find out about the more successful businessmen that followed him, such as Joseph C. Lore and Thomas R. Moore and John H. Farren, who bought the whole island in 1879 for $6,225. On the left side of this case, follow the journey that a can of oysters from Solomon’s cannery might have taken to arrive on a plate in California.
Seasons of Plenty, Seasons of Want – As new industries developed in the Chesapeake, more workers were required to support them, and a new labor force emerged, including watermen, cannery workers, shuckers, stevedores, and shipyard workers. They exploited the wide variety of seafood resources that the bay had to offer, such as crabs, eels, oysters, and soft shell clams.
Century of Shipbuilding – Find out how the M.M. Davis shipyard endured for over a century by changing with the times. See pictures and models of the different types of ships built there, from steamboats to custom yachts.
Marine Carving – This case shows a number of find examples of marine carving, and explains how the process works. Carving was an important skill and added an artistic touch, as well as identifying marks to water craft.
Shipyard Trades: A Community of Skills – Many craftsmen were employed at the Moore, Marsh, and Davis shipyards. Learn how shipwrights, carpenters, caulkers, riggers, carvers, sail makers, and blacksmiths worked together to build vessels for work, war, and pleasure. Check out all of the various tools on display, as well as several interesting figureheads and name boards.
A Business of Recreation – The Cruise Along was the most popular recreational boat build by the M.M. Davis Shipyard. Marketed to a burgeoning middle class, it became a symbol of success and leisure that the post war boom fostered.
A Lasting Military Presence – Find out why the lower Patuxent offered “a most satisfactory locality” for naval training, providing an ideal location for a naval base in 1942. In this exhibit, you can see models of authentic WWII planes, many of them built by Pepper Langley, a founder of the museum, as well as naval uniforms, mines and torpedoes which were tested here, and other local WWII memorabilia. Find out how the war and testing nearby changed life for many local watermen and their families.
From War to Recreation – The growing affluence of Americans after WWII allowed for more recreational time for activities such as fishing, boating, and general tourism. See antique fishing and boating equipment, including an authentic Cruis-Along motor cruiser, and find out how such recreational boats breathed new life into Solomons’ boat-building industry. Here you can also see several antique outboards, the small boat motors which made water recreation affordable for people in all economic classes, thus making it a mainstream activity.
Scientists and the River – See an antique aquascope, used during the 1950s to gather valuable research data on the bay in order to understand the problems facing the estuary. Also see a model of the bentharium, the first diving bell used in the Chesapeake Bay, as well as models of research vessels such as the Orion, built in 1965.
Celebrations on the River – See memorabilia relating to popular events which have taken place along the Patuxent since WWII, such as boat races and sport-fishing contests. Find out how the river’s transformation from working river to a river used primarily for recreation has impacted the area.
Chesapeake Biological Laboratory – Take a look at the computer screen at the end of the exhibit. This gives real time readings taken from one of the lab’s buoys. It updates every three seconds showing the current temperature, salinity, and wind direction.
Background and Theme—The paleontology gallery displays fossils from the Miocene epoch. That block of earth history lasted from about 23 to 5.3 million years ago. The fossils found along Calvert Cliffs are from the Miocene. For most of that epoch, global temperatures were warmer than they are today. Towards the close of the Miocene, the climate cooled - a trend that culminated in the Pleistocene epoch ice age, the most recent one with which we are all familiar. Because of evolution and extinction, only about 11% of species alive today were alive during the Miocene. To learn more about the Miocene epoch and all of the fossils on display, touch the “Time Spiral” on the touch screens located in front of the timeline mural.
Fossils—The fossil case to the left as you enter the gallery includes examples of the many ways in which the remains of organisms can become fossilized. See also the Maryland state fossil, Ecphora gardenerae, originally found in St. Mary’s County. There are more examples of local and Miocene fossils on the back wall, and more information about each type of fossil on the touch screens. Just click on the “Types of Fossils” button. If you have collected fossils from along Calvert Cliffs, use our guide to help identify your find. Those fossils, including shells, sharks’ teeth, and bones, are located on the wall opposite the recreated mural of the cliffs.
Plate Tectonics—Take a few minutes to watch the short video on the large-screen TV about plate tectonics, the birth of the Atlantic, and the formation of the Chesapeake Bay. Find out how Calvert Cliffs formed and why the Miocene epoch was vital in forming today’s landscape. Also see how erosion allows us a glimpse into the prehistoric world.
The Changing U.S.—Want to know how the shape of the United States has changed through time? You’ll find the answers on the Earth Timeline Mural. Just look for the map of the United States. You can also follow the continents as they move (known as plate tectonics) through much of Earth’s history using the “Animation” feature on the touch screens.
Mass Extinction—It wasn’t just the dinosaurs—five of the largest mass extinctions of all time are included on the “Earth Timeline.” Learn about cycles of global warming and cooling and find out what caused them. Play the “Mass Extinction” game on the touch screens. Use the information on the wall to help you. What do you think—Are we on the verge of another mass extinction?
Complexity of Fossils—Before leaving the “Earth Timeline,” note how organisms become more complex over time by noting the silhouettes of different life forms at the rim of the Timeline. Can you find the horseshoe crab and scorpion?
Sharks—You can’t miss the impressive megalodon skeleton replica, but also be sure to note that fossil remains of smaller dolphins and toothed whales are prominent in the Calvert Cliffs. Also learn about the other kinds of sharks which lived in prehistoric times, as well as their descendants with which we are familiar today.
Teeth and Death—Because sharks’ teeth are often the only evidence of their prehistoric presence on Earth, how was the whole skeleton of this extinct giant shark reconstructed? Look to the “Building the Megatooth” exhibit for answers. Find out just why we find so many sharks’ teeth in “The Science of Death” exhibit, and learn what kind of fossil evidence you might leave behind as a dead ocean dweller at the “Wheel of Fossil Fortune” dial.
The Chesapeake in the Miocene—In the “Life Along the Miocene Coast” exhibit, the animal and plant fossils on display reveal a great deal about what life was like along the Atlantic coast during the Miocene. The presence of crocodile fossils shows us that it would have been wet and warm. The closest living cousin to this extinct croc is the False Gavial of Malaysia and Indonesia!
Diversity of Whales—In the “Diversity of Whales” exhibit, see how, as you go back in time, whales increasingly resemble carnivorous, land-dwelling mammals. Why did these earliest land-dwelling ‘whales’ take to water? Think about this when you see our river otters, Bubbles and Squeak. The earliest whales were similar in body proportions and life style. Land-dwelling whales were extinct long before the Miocene.
Prep Lab—Learn how fossils are collected, prepared, and preserved in the short video. Watch the fossil preparators at work! Retired dental scalers are the tool of choice here. Feel free to ask them questions, they have a wealth of information.