Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Don't Be Fooled By This Urban Legend

For some reason, there has been a recent rash of people asking about the little boy who kidnapped or stole one of the Tennessee Aquarium’s penguins. This may be one of the most interesting myths of our time according to Amy Graves, the Aquarium’s senior aviculturist. “The tale is not true of course, whether it's one of our penguins or a bird from some other zoo or aquarium,” said Graves. “Friends of mine at the Knoxville Zoo say they get asked about one of their African penguins being stolen too.” There seems to be an ebb and flow to this rumor as it washes across the country through e-mails and blogs. This story has traveled around the globe in enough waves to gain official status as an “urban legend.”

Story goes something like this: A small boy gets separated from his parents at the Tennessee Aquarium. While he is exploring on his own, he manages to sneak a baby penguin into his backpack. The child is reunited with his parents who are so relieved the child is safe that they don’t notice the abducted penguin in his backpack. Later after they arrive home, the parents are shocked to find the boy playing with the baby penguin in the bathtub.

According to Snopes.com, this myth might have originated in 1993 as one of the first viral e-mails passed from person to person. The zoo or aquarium changes from time to time, but the basic story remains the same. This website also cites the 2002 children's book, “Tina and the Penguin,” by Heather Dyer as a possible cause for re-igniting these false stories. http://www.snopes.com/critters/farce/smuggled.asp

Kevin Calhoon, the Tennessee Aquarium’s assistant curator of forests, says this urban legend has problems from the start. “First of all, not many people at the Aquarium have keys to our penguin exhibit,” said Calhoon. “So access is very restricted. But even if someone could get into Penguins’ Rock, our birds are used to certain people. If anyone else goes in there, the birds dive into the water.” Calhoon also punches holes in this story with the following points:

1. Penguins look cuddly, but they can be rather feisty. If you're ever at the Tennessee Aquarium when it's time for our birds to be examined, you'll see that it's challenging for trained keepers to catch a bird. They'll waddle quickly off or simply peck and flap like crazy. Some of the Aquarium’s penguins weigh up to twenty pounds and the larger the bird, the harder they are to handle.

2. Penguins have powerful flippers. Our keepers know how to safely subdue a bird when it's necessary to handle them. But even the Aquarium’s trained staff members respect the strong slap that can be delivered by a flipper.

3. A penguin would continue to flap, squawk and wiggle around if it was in a backpack. And that would draw everyone's attention.

4. We have not had baby penguins at the Tennessee Aquarium yet. But the “Magic Rocks” used for nesting materials will be given to the gentoo and macaroni penguins on April 1st. Aviculturists at the Aquarium are hoping that providing these rocks will trigger courtship and breeding behavior.

To help lay this urban legend to rest, two communications students from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have produced a penguin caper video recreating this urban legend. “It was fun working with the Aquarium and learning about the penguins,” said Bill Puckett, a UTC junior. “I learned a lot about the penguins,” said fellow UTC junior, Brooke Fontana. “Especially how difficult it would be to even touch a penguin without them going crazy.”

The video can be seen on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6gAJD5DLWM

Monday, March 30, 2009

Yabba Dabba Doo! Penguins Getting Magic Rocks

Move over Fred Flinstone - Kevin Calhoon, Amy Graves, Loribeth Aldrich and Jennifer Taylor recently went through a lot of effort at a local quarry to gather rocks for the Tennessee Aquarium's penguins. And they did it without the help of a brontosaurus.

Kevin recently visited five gentoo rookeries on an Aquarium trip to Antarctica and noticed the nesting rocks were similar to limestone that's quarried around Chattanooga. This photo was taken in Antarctica by Jack McKee. It shows a gentoo on a nest that is built up out of these angular rocks.

Last year smooth, rounded river rocks were given to the Tennessee Aquarium's penguins for nesting material. The birds built nests, but as Amy Graves explained, "When the penguins would lay down on the nests, some of the rocks would slide out. Especially when the big gentoos would lay down." These more jagged and angular rocks should allow the Aquarium's birds to build taller nests similar to the ones Calhoon observed in Antarctica.

The individual rocks were carefully hand selected by the group as seen in these pictures. The rocks couldn't be small enough for any of the birds to swallow, or too large for the penguins to carry around in their beaks.

Kevin probably wished he had Fred Flinstone's brontosaurus crane to load the rocks. They gathered nearly 1,000 pounds of rocks for the penguins!

Once the rocks arrived at the Aquarium, the work continued. Each and every rock had to be disinfected before being brought in. That process continues today. The penguins will get the "magic rocks" on Wednesday, April 1st. Visitors will enjoy watching the birds gathering rocks, carrying them across the exhibit in their beaks and building nests. The penguins will also squabble over favored rocks and occasionally snatch a stone or two from another penguin's nest. It will be a lot of fun to watch and hear. Yabba Dabba Doo!
Click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56n9bu0XAIU to watch Loribeth Aldrich explain more about selecting these "Magic Rocks."

Friday, March 27, 2009

New Living Coral Exhibit in Boneless Beauties

A new living coral exhibit is now open in the Boneless Beauties gallery inside the Tennessee Aquarium's Ocean Journey Building. This particular display features living coral colonies that can be found in relatively shallow waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans off the coast of southeast Asia. Every coral in this exhibit was cultured or grown by specialists who raise coral. No coral was taken from nature for this exhibit, which is an important point for everyone to understand.
We try to communicate the difference between living coral and the coral recreations found in the Secret Reef during our dive shows.
The artificial corals you see in the Secret Reef exhibit are concrete simulations made to look as close to living coral as possible. These look-a-likes are modeled after types of corals found in relatively deep waters about 110 miles southeast of Galveston, Texas in the protected area of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Representatives from the FGBNM Sanctuary and divers who have been to that area marvel at the natural look of this exhibit.
Removing ANY coral from the ocean would damage the environment.
(It would take thousands of years for these tiny animals to build the huge, boulder formations recreated in the Secret Reef.)
And today, the world's coral reefs are facing a number of challenges. In fact, a recent article in the Washington Post informs us of a scientific report which documents declines in Caribbean corals and reef fish. Read it here: http://tinyurl.com/crqgky

Coral reefs can be wonderfully colorful and vibrant places. After viewing this exhibit up close, check out the beautiful coral reef scenes in "Under the Sea 3D" now showing at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX Theater.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Early Bird Specials Aboard The Explorer

Take advantage of the new Early Bird Special aboard the Tennessee Aquarium River Gorge Explorer – $20 per person. From now until April 19th, save when you book the 10 a.m. or 10:30 a.m. cruise in advance. Call 1-800-262-0695 for your reservation and mention the "Early Bird Special".

Heavy rains this time of year mean more waterfalls are visible in the Gorge. Right now the trees are beginning to fill in with leaves, but passengers aboard the Explorer are still able to see the temporary falls that appear as a result of heavy runoff.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Shopping for Rocks - Romance Ahead

Our penguin keepers were at a local quarry with hard hats and raincoats on today. They were selecting rocks for Penguins' Rock. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 pounds of rock were being picked up today. The stones will be disinfected before being added to the exhibit on Wednesday, April 1st. Almost immediately the gentoos and macaronis will begin selecting rocks to build nests. If you missed it last year, don't miss it this year. It's comical to see the birds meticulously selecting just the right rock and then carrying the stone to their special nesting site. We are hopeful that this year's romance will be successful. Stay tuned for more information about penguin courtship at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Old hook probable cause of shark death.

You never forget the first time you dive into the Tennessee Aquarium’s Secret Reef exhibit, especially if you have not had the rare open-water diving experience of being surrounded by large sharks. The sandbar and sand tiger sharks at the Aquarium are big and fierce-looking when viewed through the acrylic separating "their world" from "ours." So when I bent over in the water with my dive gear on to peer into the giant tank that very first time, a shiver went down my spine as I looked down just beyond my scuba fins to watch an eight-foot long shark easing past my feet. I thought, "What have I gotten myself into?" Since then, I have learned to appreciate the awesome nature of these creatures. Their special adaptations, how their bodies function, their role in the ocean, and most importantly, how they are NOT eating machines that will go out of their way to harm people. I marvel at the way they move, but still respect the toothy grin that leads their way. Looking into a sand tiger's eyes while in "their world" still quickens the pulse a little bit. So I felt some sadness at last Tuesday night's maintenance dive when I learned that the Aquarium's female sand tiger had died the night before.

The Aquarium has a wonderful living collection of animals big and small. Each species with varying degrees of life expectancy. And, like each of us, every animal is an individual within a species. Some will outlive others.

Many of the animals at the Tennessee Aquarium have a unique story. So here's what we know about this particular shark:

This animal was collected, with the other sand tiger sharks in the Secret Reef, off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland in the summer of 2004. The collector uses specific hooks and techniques to ensure the animal will be healthy and robust once it is placed on display. Before the sharks came to Chattanooga, they were visually inspected to make sure they were in good condition and ready for transport. All of the animals made the journey in fine shape. The sharks were introduced to the Secret Reef in late spring of 2005, prior to the opening of Ocean Journey. The female sand tiger shark weighed 268 pounds at that time. All of these animals have been eating well and acting normally while patrolling the waters of the Secret Reef. The sharks in the Secret Reef are fed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Normally, each shark will eat about two to four pounds of fish during these feedings. All of the animals including the female sand tiger ate normally on Monday, March 9th. In fact, she ate two fish that day and appeared to be doing well.

Later that evening, during a routine check, someone noticed the female sand tiger at the bottom of the tank. Husbandry staff and the Aquarium's veterinarian were contacted right away. The husbandry staff donned scuba gear and brought the shark up into a shallow holding tank, but the shark died in spite of this rescue attempt.

A necropsy was performed to try to determine what caused the animal's death. And during the course of this post-mortem examination, a six-inch long stainless steel "J" hook with heavy monofilament leader was found in her stomach cavity. Some of her digestive tract and vital organs were scarred from the movement of this hook through her system over years. There was also signs of infection. Tissue samples were sent off to labs for additional analysis to determine whether or not any other conditions contributed to this shark's death.

It is difficult to know the exact age of a shark, but Aquarium experts estimate this animal was between the ages of 13 and 16. Studies have shown that sand tiger sharks have average life spans between 15 and 20 years in the open ocean.

Many shark species are amazingly resilient when they are injured. And this animal's ability to live with a hook inside her stomach for nearly five years (at least) is testament to that resilient nature. Had the hook been made out of metal rather than stainless steel, it might have dissovled over the course of that many years, but no one knows for sure.

We can also speculate that because commercial fishing for sand tiger sharks has been prohibited where this shark came from, it's possible that she was hooked and brought up alongside a fishing boat where a fisherman recognized the animal as a protected species, then cut the line to let her go with the hook. Again, no one will know for sure.

When this animal died, she weighed 252 pounds. All of the other sharks in this group have gained weight on exhibit.

There are four sand tigers and two sandbar sharks in the Secret Reef today. Tuesday night, I was a diver once again in "their world" helping to clean the exhibit. I was once again captivated by watching the sharks pass nearby or overhead. Flashes of light caught my eye as visitors snapped pictures of the animals from the other side of the acrylic. Today I observed them from "our world" among the Aquarium visitors and marveled at how many digital images were being captured of the sharks on cameras and cell phones. When visitors quiz the Aquarium's docents or volunteer divers during the interactive dive shows, they ask really good questions about these animals. By providing the answers and presenting these animals in the proper context, our visitors learn to appreciate these animals and their role in the natural world.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tons 'O Aquarium Fun

We tip our pith helmets to anyone adventurous enough to visit the Tennessee Aquarium for Spring Break Safaris and Close Encounters of the Animal Kind.
Kids have three Aquarium Safaris to choose from. Two place them in the role of Aquatic Biologists and one allows them to join the crew aboard the Tennessee Aquarium River Gorge Explorer. Click here to learn more: http://www.tnaqua.org/Newsroom/SpringBreakSafaris.asp
Check out this video for a taste of what you'll experience during the morning aquatic safari at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Spring break is a wild time at the Tennessee Aquarium with our new Animal Encounters. Three new educators have been hired to ensure our guests have a chance to meet more of our incredible animals up close more often. These close encounters of the animal kind help connect visitors with creatures that they might not otherwise happen upon in their daily lives. Many of these animals lead cryptic lives underground or only come out well after sunset.

With so much going on at the Tennessee Aquarium, spring break and St. Patrick's Day are going to be "Tons 'O Fun!"

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Romantic Time on the River

The Tennessee River Gorge can be a romantic place in the spring. Anyone searching for a special location to pop the question, tie the knot or renew their vows might consider a special cruise. Our captains are ordained ministers, so with advanced notice, bring a license and a witness and you’ll be able to begin a voyage of a lifetime aboard the Explorer.
The Masters family from Monteagle, TN recently renewed their vows during a special Valentine's Day sunset cruise aboard the River Gorge Explorer. Here's what Mrs. Masters had to say about their experience:

"Wow! It was a whole different experience! The new River Gorge Explorer is so sleek and clean and…we were thrilled with the wonderful expanses of glass through which we could really see what was on the river that day (Our 11, 9 and 3-year-old daughters pretty much kept their faces glued to those windows!). We saw several Great Blue Herons and some Vultures and thought we might even have seen a Kingfisher.

After we'd sampled some really good hors d'oeuvres, provided by Blue Water Grille, we went up on deck where the view was even better. We all loved that, and the girls really enjoyed feeling the wind in their faces. After a while we enjoyed a wonderful light buffet and went back down to our seats to enjoy our meal. When it was announced that the Captain Pete was ready to renew peoples' wedding vows, Brian and I looked at each other and made a very spur of the moment decision to renew our vows! It was great that our daughters could be there as our witnesses, that worked out very well and made it special. It was as if everyone had gathered just for us! We finished with a splash of sparkling grape juice and some photos of the occasion. We have been married 20 years and are pleased that we had the opportunity to renew our vows with other folks from the Tennessee Aquarium.

We have been members of the Tennessee Aquarium for quite some time, and, every time anyone mentions the Aquarium, we tell them about all the wonderful opportunities we have taken advantage of through our membership. Each quarter my husband and I look forward to the 212 Market Cooking demonstration and dinner as a night out for just the two of us. We also sign up for several other offerings for our individual daughters as well as for our whole family. Our youngest daughter, Ella, was at the Penguin workshop on the morning of Valentine's Day! We have participated in countless member nights, a New Year's Eve Sleep with the Fishes, canoeing, and a Full Moon Paddle, to name a few. We were also there for the "black and white" catered affair for the pre-opening of the Penguin Exhibit in the new Ocean Journey building at the Aquarium--very cool!"
Thanks for sharing your story and pictures with us.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Get Ready To "Spring Forward!"

Thanks to Michael Neu for sending these fantastic frog picture from his recent visit to the Tennessee Aquarium.
Get ready to “Spring Forward” with the Tennessee Aquarium Saturday, March 7th and celebrate fabulous frogs and amazing amphibians. While everyone is thinking about moving their clocks ahead one hour, the Aquarium is partnering with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to host a day of frog focused fun.

Throughout the day Tennessee Aquarium visitors will be able to:

- Meet “Tad”, the Aquarium’s marvelous frog mascot, and have their picture taken with this “hoppy-go-lucky” character.
- Get closer to amphibians like frogs and salamanders during special, animal encounters presented by Aquarium educators.
- Create a frog paper puppet craft to take home and enjoy.
- Seek out the amazing and colorful frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and aquatic caecilians on display throughout the River Journey building.
- Discover what’s happening to the world’s amphibians during several short auditorium presentations about frog conservation.
All “Spring Forward” events at the Tennessee Aquarium are part of a continuing effort to call attention to the on-going amphibian crisis and educate the public about ways to help our froggy friends here in the Tennessee Valley.

So hop on down to the Aquarium for a great day of fun!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Free trees at the Tennessee Aquarium for Arbor Day

Chattanooga's Arbor Day is Friday, March 6th. The Tennessee Aquarium and the Lookout Mountain Conservancy encourage everyone to plant a native tree this year. To promote native tree planting, willow oak and hawthorne trees will be available free of charge, at the Tennessee Aquarium’s River Journey building at the gift shop entrance. Six hundred trees will be available on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 10 am Friday morning.

Willow oaks can be seen in the circle drive in front of the Aquarium. (Shown in their winter phase above.) They are very adaptable trees that do well in all types of soil and weather conditions. They are excellent shade trees that do well in urban landscapes. Willow oaks do require a considerable amount of room as they can reach heights up to 100 feet.

Hawthorne trees are a fruit-bearing, middle story tree growing to heights of 30 to 50 feet. These attractive trees produce lovely white blooms in spring and an apple-like fruit which is a favorite food source for many songbirds. One of the largest hawthorne trees in Tennessee is located in Chattanooga’s National Cemetery. Many people may have also enjoyed watching cardinals among the hawthorne branches at the Chattanooga Nature Center.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Butterflies and thoughts of springtime

We had a blustery day in Chattanooga yesterday. A few snow flurries were seen around the area and a light dusting of snow coated our local mountains. The windy and cold conditions are still with us today. From inside looking out, it's hard to tell that such a sunny day could be so deceptively chilly. It's times like these that call for a retreat into the tropical warmth of the Tennessee Aquarium's butterfly garden. And right on cue, these beautiful butterfly pictures were delivered this morning by e-mail from an Atlanta resident who wanted to share her pictures with everyone.

"I have been to your aquarium twice now. I live in Atlanta and was recommended to go to the Tennessee Aquarium. The first time I went was in July of last year on a wonderful package deal from Costco that included Imax, aquarium and lodging at the Chattanooga Choo choo. I can't afford many vacations so this was a great value. The second time was this past fall and took my sister and brother. Both of whom loved the aquarium. Since the leaves were changing we included sight seeing at Rock City and Cloudland canyon, which is one of my favorite places now. It's only a couple hours to Tennessee and is easily a day trip. I highly recommend visiting.
I have many wonderful pictures from my visits but especially love butterflies." - Alyse, Atlanta, GA.

Thanks Alyse for sharing your story and images with us!

Right now Chattanooga is about to burst out in spring color. A few of the redbuds and bradford pear trees are blooming. Hopefully we've seen the last of "old man winter" for this year.