Scorpions, spiders and poison toads - Oh my! Critters: Beginning Saturday, venomous animals replace jellyfish as star attractions at the National Aquarium.

Up front

March 12, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Say their names. Death adder. Green mamba. Black widow. Boomslang. The words stir ancient fears. Adrenalin seeps into the blood. The heart accelerates. Hairs stand on end.

These creatures are not your everyday creepy-crawlies - the garter snake in the woodpile, the house spider that drops onto the bed or the bee that bumbles into the car as you drive.

These babies can take you out. And they're waiting for you at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

"Venom: Striking Beauties," which runs from Saturday through January 2000, features 40 of the world's scariest critters. There are vipers, venomous fish, poison toads, stinging scorpions, cone snails, biting centipedes and more.

"We've got some of the top venomous animals in the world," says rain forest curator Jack Cover, who conceived the "Venom" exhibit.

They've been gathered from institutions and collectors around the world. Cover and his staff netted sea snakes off Panama and found black widow spiders in a Maryland dump.

Everything's displayed up-close and personal in a chilling, cage-like setting. An edgy soundtrack is calculated to make you feel even more unsettled.

"Venom" is the second in a series of changing exhibits at the aquarium, replacing the ethereal and popular jellyfish exhibit. "Jellies: Phantoms of the Deep" has moved out after a two-year run.

Cover admits venom has fascinated him since childhood.

Once, in a careless moment while working for a Baltimore venom lab, he was bitten by a beaded lizard. The neurotoxin paralyzed his breathing. "I was thinking this was it for me; I was going to die as a teen-ager," he recalls. Supportive hospital care and an antidote saved him. But he was impressed: "Venom is cool stuff."

Mark Donovan, senior director of exhibit design, says the aquarium is not trying simply to scare the tweet out of its visitors. It wants people to leave with a new appreciation for some of nature's most arresting creations.

"They're very compelling animals, and we felt they lent &r themselves to being very . . . not charismatic in the way jellyfish are, but very popular animals," he says. "I think people want to get this close to them and see what they're like."

His 1,800-square-foot "Venom" exhibit features 18 clear-plastic aquariums and terrariums set low on the walls. Visitors - especially kids - will get within inches of the gaboon vipers, the cowkiller ants and the Australian taipan snakes.

The settings are realistic, except that the animals can't hide. "There are so many exhibits where you go into a reptile house, and it says there's a snake in the exhibit, but you can't find it," Donovan says. Not here.

Lethal blue-ringed octopuses, Australian natives that can paralyze a man's breathing in 30 minutes, are small and shy. But here they'll be front-and-center.

If the real cobras aren't "hooding" and preparing to strike, a video cobra taped in the aquarium's Fells Point warehouse may appear amid the display's vegetation to show how it's done.

The taipan snake exhibit is a knee-high view of an Australian sugar-worker's shack. Inside the screen door putters the barefoot lady of the house, and her mutt (life-size on video).

Just outside are the dog's bowl and leash, and some bad-tempered taipans, packing some of the planet's most toxic venom.

The "Venom" exhibit's ominous outer security doors are not just for show. For safety reasons, all 18 displays open into the room for servicing. If anything escapes while staff members are working, it lands where it can be contained and dealt with.

(The aquarium has also assembled an emergency manual and antivenins for its staff. City hospitals have been alerted.)

Donovan's high-security design pervades the room. The place is paneled with screwed-on perforated metal sheets. There are metal tread plates on the floor and corrugated steel ceiling panels. It feels like a tropical bio-hazard lab.

Hollywood has exploited misconceptions and ignorance of venomous animals to terrify moviegoers and sell tickets. Remember the snake pit in the movie "Indiana Jones"? Cover says, "90 percent of them were either ... [harmless] legless lizards purchased in stores in England or [non-venomous] pythons."

The aquarium is counting on fear and fascination to sell tickets. But once he's got the crowds, Cover hopes to educate them with clever displays and interactive computers, and de-mystify the creatures.

For example, you don't have to hop a tramp steamer to Amazonia to find venomous animals. Cover's staff found their black widow spiders in a Calvert County dump. They were brought back to the aquarium in their native rusty can.

Female black widows can incapacitate a 200-pound man in 30 minutes, but they are not aggressive, and their bites are rarely fatal to people. Venomous cowkillers and red velvet ants (both actually wingless wasps) are also found in Maryland.

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