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Bubba: Super Grouper

His underbite was so prominent that you hardly noticed the sizable scar branded across his dappled forehead. But Bubba, the 154-pound Queensland grouper in the Wild Reef shark habitat, was a reminder of how far veterinary medicine — and Shedd Aquarium's staff, in particular — have come in treating a diseased animal.

In 2001 aquarists noticed pink, pimply growths that resembled a bacterial infection on Bubba's head. When antibiotics failed to nip their development, two biopsies were ordered over several months that eventually revealed a malignant tumor. In fall 2002, Shedd veterinarians and two guest veterinary oncologists performed surgery and administered chemotherapy-believed to be the first such chemo treatment for a fish.

But the cancer returned. The team operated again in spring 2003, taking wider margins of tissue to eliminate more of the malignant cells. Medical-grade connective tissue implants — the same kind used in human medicine — were applied to spur tissue growth, and chemotherapy was administered along the wound's edge. A special sling held Bubba in place in his operating tub, and veterinarians, for obvious reasons, couldn't keep his wounds dry and bandaged. Fortunately Bubba's natural mucus covering contains powerful antibodies that protected him from infection.

The story doesn't end there. Bubba might have been called Barbie-having been left at the receptionist's desk in 1987 as a 10-inch female! Queensland groupers typically reach 400 to 600 pounds, and can top 800, so her owner probably realized that she would soon outgrow the home aquarium. At Shedd, she eventually became a he. Gender switching is an adaptation among a number of families of fishes to maximize reproduction.

Just as our dolphins respond to specific shapes, Bubba learned to swim to a blue triangle at feeding time. This ensured that he was not taking all the food away from his shark companions and gave aquarists the chance to chart his well-being.

Bubba liked to hover front and center in the 400,000-gallon shark habitat, eyeballing onlookers with equal curiosity. His story was reported in newspapers and on TV around the world, and he became an inspiration to many human cancer patients, especially the youngest ones. Bubba was honored with a recognition tile in the oncology department of Hope Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois.

Bubba died suddenly in August 2006 of health problems related to his age and his medical history.


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