- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

More than 1,800 new animals are swimming, slithering and flying in the National Aquarium in Baltimore’s new “Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes” exhibit.

These are not just any old fish. Among them are freshwater crocodiles, 4-foot swimming lizards, 7-foot predator snakes and a range of turtles, some with foot-long necks.

“I would say about 75 [percent] to 80 percent of these animals are endemic to Australia; you won’t find them anywhere else in the world,” says John Seyjagat, the aquarium’s curator for Australian exhibits. “The flying fox, the freshwater crocodile, the king parrot are all unique to Australia.”

And yes, this exhibit — despite being at the aquarium — is not just about water animals.

“We’ve tried to re-create the entire ecosystem,” says Jack Cover, general curator at the aquarium. “That ecosystem includes birds, lizards, trees, crocodiles, even people.”

The exhibit, which opened Friday, portrays a typical ecosystem of a gorge in the Northern Territory and includes waterfalls, eucalyptus and pandanus trees as well as cliffs and rocks (which in the exhibit are made of shotcrete, a concretelike construction material). Instead of rivers and lakes, the exhibit has several large tanks.

A 20-minute film, produced by the Animal Planet television network, shows visitors how very extreme conditions are in the Northern Territory.

During the dry season, also referred to as the fire season by the Aborigines, temperatures higher than 110 degrees Fahrenheit are not unusual. The dry season is followed by the wet season, which is characterized by torrential rains. The movie narrator says these conditions have helped create some of the oddest and most resilient creatures in the world, such as lizards that swim — the 4-foot Merten’s water monitor — and “foxes” that fly — the Australian fruit bat.

The exhibit showcases 120 species that call these gorges their home.

As visitors walk through the exhibit’s airtight revolving doors, birds such as the sulfur-crested cockatoo and the rainbow lorikeet fly overhead, and lizards such as the 27.5-inch frilled lizard scurry through crevices in the rocks. There is no barrier between human and animal.

“We wanted to make it feel like you’re really there,” Mr. Cover says.

He is not worried that animals will jump into visitors’ purses or land on their heads.

“The rocks are heated, which makes them an attractive place for the lizards,” he says. Trees are planted up high on rocks to steer the birds up and away.

The crocodiles, turtles and fish live in seven tanks containing a total of 55,000 gallons of water.

Why so many tanks?

“We have to keep prey and predators — big fish and little fish — apart,” Mr. Cover says.

The exhibit’s seven freshwater crocodiles, for example, amicably share a tank with Australian snapping turtles and 1.6-inch spotted blue-eye fish. Apparently the smaller animals aren’t tasty to the crocodiles, which can grow to about 10 feet long and eat anything from insects to wallabies.

Some of the predators are, well, too predatory and have to be alone, such as the 7-foot black-headed python, which is in a tank by itself. It kills its prey by constriction and then swallows it whole.

Some attention also is paid to the Aborigines, the original peoples of Australia. On display are rock paintings, common in the gorges, and information about certain aboriginal beliefs, such as that a spirit called the “lightning man” starts storms.

“The attention to detail in this exhibit is second to none,” says Jeff Corwin, host on the Animal Planet network and a recent preview guide at the aquarium. “It really is almost like a little microcosm.”

Mr. Corwin says he has been to the exhibit four or five times and still discovers new, interesting things.

“People have a fascination with Australia, and this exhibit is a great ambassador,” he says.

Mr. Cover says he hopes visitors, particularly children, not only will learn and be fascinated by Australia, but also will gain an understanding about the importance of a sound ecosystem, whether it’s in the Northern Territory or the Chesapeake Bay.

“I hope that they will become a protector,” Mr. Cover says. “That they will be the one to move the turtle off the road.”

When you go:

Location: The National Aquarium in Baltimore is located at 501 E. Pratt St.

Directions: Take Interstate 295 north to Baltimore. Turn right onto Pratt Street. The aquarium will be on the right after about a mile.

Hours: The aquarium is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. Hours will change for several dates in December: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Dec. 24, closed Dec. 25, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 26 through Dec. 29, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 30 and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 31. The aquarium will be open its regular hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Jan. 1. Museum officials recommend that visitors call ahead to confirm hours of operation.

Parking: Pay-parking garages are available.

Admission: $21.95 for adults, $20.95 for adults age 60 and older, $14.95 for children age 3 through 11, children age 2 and younger are admitted free.

Information: 410/576-3800 or www.aqua.org.

Notes: The aquarium is located in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which offers several places to eat. The aquarium also has its own restaurant, the Old Bay Cafe.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide