In Sickness and In Health

Pathologist Pat Morales tracks and treats disease in the Academy's Steinhart Aquarium.


Is there a fish doctor in the house? When any of the some 600 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, and other animals in the Steinhart Aquarium come down with an illness or injury, Academy Pathologist Pat Morales is there to identify and fix the problem. On any given day, she and her team of part-time veterinarians and lab assistants may patch up a penguin, perform surgery on a snapping turtle, or make a necropsy-the nonhuman equivalent of an autopsy-on an anaconda.

But fish, by far, are the most difficult to treat, she says. For one, they need to remain moist. So piscine patients removed from their tanks are wrapped in wet towels while Morales or a lab member quickly examines the gills for parasites, or takes "fin clips" or "scale scrapings" for further analysis. Sometimes sick fish can remain in the aquarium for care. To cure "Ich," a common disease that forms white spots and a milky slime on afflicted fish, treatment can simply be added to the water. To ensure diseases aren't introduced into the aquarium, new fish are quarantined for at least three weeks before joining others.

In her 21 years at the Academy, Morales has dealt with plenty of diseases and frequently lectures and writes about them. She's become an authority figure on fish tuberculosis, a disease which is now known to spread to other animals. Morales was the first to report this disease in lizards, specifically a group of Egyptian spiny-tailed lizards (Uromastyx aegyptius).

Pat Morales at her microscope in the Aquarium laboratory.

Pat Morales with cured green water dragon, Physignathus cocincinus.
White cloud minnow (Tanichthys albonubis) with Ich disease. Photo: Pat Morales

Protozoan responsible for Ich disease, easily recognizable by horseshoe-shaped nucleus.
Photo by P. Morales