Aquarium to plant forest

Opening: Baltimore attraction is putting together Amazon River Forest -- its first new permanent exhibit since 1990.

November 28, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Amid the restaurants of Fells Point, a note hangs on a warehouse wall warning waiters of the finicky dining habits of a slender young visitor from Suriname.

9/29/99. Served duck. She refused it.

10/14/99. Live duck. Refused.

10/20/99. Dead rat. Refused.

"We haven't yet found the item that she likes," sighed Jack Cover. "So next we'll try a small pig."

Cover, a curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, is talking about a 16-foot-long anaconda being held in a tank in a storage building on South Wolfe Street. It is waiting to be added to the aquarium's new Amazon River Forest exhibit, which will open March 4.

The snake will live among 6,000 tropical fish, dozens of reptiles, birds, and pink-toed tarantulas in an elaborate 57-foot-long tank that workers are building on the aquarium's fourth floor.

Although the 18-year-old institution frequently rotates exhibits, the Amazon River Forest will be its first new permanent display since it opened the Marine Mammal Pavilion in 1990, said Jill Galloway, aquarium public relations manager.

The $3 million jungle landscape will show the complex varieties of life on the riverbanks and in the shallows of the Amazon in Brazil. It is meant to complement a more than decade-old aquarium display on life among the treetops in South American jungles.

"It's rare to find an exhibit where you find so many different kinds of species in one place," said Galloway. "We are going to have 50 different species of animals and fish here, including the 16-foot anaconda."

Most of the fish were netted during an expedition to the Rio Negro in Brazil this fall. Scientists are keeping them quarantined from the aquarium's other fish until they determine if the new fish have parasites that might infect the others.

Aquarium officials aren't worried that the 16-foot-long anaconda -- one of four that will rotate from the warehouse through the new exhibit -- hasn't eaten since April 24. They say the snake showed plenty of life recently when five guards wrestled with her to take a blood sample. It dragged one guard around like he was a rag doll.

"It's not uncommon for an anaconda to refuse food for a year and still remain healthy," said Cover. "They are amazing creatures."

On a recent morning, workers sculpted epoxy resin to create a muddy river bank. They painted plastic tubing to make it look like vines. They poured gravel to serve as bedding for plants and hung frayed rope to look like roots.

To make room for the 20,000-gallon tank, the aquarium moved its "children's cove" exhibit, which features sea creatures that children can touch.

Now a transparent wall divides the chamber that used to hold the cove. On one side is a walkway for visitors, where construction workers are installing lights. On the other side, water will rise between gnarled roots.

Biologists have used plastic pipe to create logs in which tarantulas will weave their nests. Scampering over the logs will be dwarf caiman lizards from Peru. Beneath the water will swim fresh-water rays, angel fish and stick catfish, among dozens of other species.

Flowering above will be more than 150 species of tropical plants, including miniature kapok trees, passion flowers, golden peanuts, garlic vines, angel's trumpets and orchids, said Chip Blackburn, a horticulturist working on the project.

Flittering through the forest will be paradise tanagers with green faces and purple chests, and many other birds.

Allan Sutherland, one of the exhibit's designers, said workers are using artificial materials -- fiberglass, concrete, PVC piping and epoxy -- to create a natural-looking riverbank because real mud might collapse and would make the water too dark.

Piranhas will swim among fish they consider part of their natural diet, such as red hooks and silver dollars. But the aquarium will keep the predators well-fed, so they won't kill all the other fish. And exhibit designers are creating hiding places behind roots so other fish can escape.

Piranha's image unfair

Sutherland said piranhas have an unfairly negative image.

"They aren't ravenous and ruthless and out of control, like they appear to be in the movies," said Sutherland. "They are actually rather shy. We are planning to have divers in the tanks cleaning the equipment, and we suspect they will not be eaten."

Suspect?

"Don't write that down," Sutherland said. "We are certain they won't be eaten."

Sandy Barnett, a herpetologist (reptile scientist), who keeps a jar of live flies and a box of poison dart frogs on her desk, said that the new exhibit will feature snakes called bushmasters.

"These are the most beautiful snakes anyone has ever seen," said Barnett. "Handsome and venomous."

Although the exhibit is meant to highlight exotic species, two locals have managed to slip in.

Baltimorean fish

Their names are Bubba and Little Bubba. Obese and whiskered, they spend all of their time at the end of the bar in the Flamingo Lounge strip club on Baltimore Street, watching dancers.

Dave Emery, the bar owner, bought the pair of red-tailed catfish 1 1/2 years ago for $30 each from a fish store in Randallstown.

The fish are as entertaining as the dancers, gobbling up 30 to 40 live goldfish per feeding. One ate a padlock someone threw in. But they quickly grew so fat, Emery could no longer hold them in his 150-gallon tank.

"We wanted the fish to have a good home," said Emery. "The girls are planning a good-bye party for them."

Sutherland said the lounge fish will fit into the Amazon exhibit because their species is native to Brazil.

"They fit in well with snakes," said Sutherland.

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