A bit of Australia in storage

Acclimating: A Fells Point warehouse puts up critters while space at the aquarium is readied.

November 30, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Locked away in a Fells Point warehouse, an eclectic group of birds chirp at each other in a temperature-controlled room as a radio blares in the background.

The National Aquarium's brightly colored parrots and cockatiels aren't picking up any language skills from the radio, turned on and off by a timer throughout the day. But they are getting used to the stream of chatter they'll hear when people flock to see them in 2005.

"We don't want to suddenly expose them to the noises they'll be hearing. It could be too much of a shock," said Jack Cover, aquarium curator.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's editions about animals collected for the National Aquarium's Australian exhibit incorrectly referred to a crocodile named Crazy Sheila as an amphibian. Sheila, like all crocodiles, is a reptile.

The birds are among 270 animals in the warehouse on South Wolfe Street, the earliest arrivals for an exhibit that will re-create an Australian river gorge. The exhibit will house 3,000 animals in a $66 million addition under construction at the Inner Harbor.

Although the exhibit won't open until the spring of 2005, Cover said the aquarium staff began collecting animals two years ago to study their diets, monitor their health and make sure they can share their man-made habitats.

"This definitely isn't something you can do overnight," Cover said.

That much is apparent during a tour of the warehouse, where Cover often uses the term "bizarro guys" to describe his critters.

For many, the description fits.

There's a fruit bat with a puppy-like face (officially a gray-headed flying fox); a species of fish, unchanged since prehistoric times, with leg-like flippers (the Australian lungfish); and a lizard with a blue tongue (the northern blue-tongued skink).

Not to mention a pig-nosed turtle whose discovery in 1970 confirmed the accuracy of drawings -- once thought to be based on myths -- that Aborigines left on their cave walls.

The exhibit is a re-creation of the Umbrawarra Gorge in northern Australia, an arid environment with a 35-foot waterfall and striking rock formations where downpours can flood usually dry riverbeds.

`Like no other place'

Aquarium officials say they selected Australia because much of the world's smallest continent is unsettled.

Roughly the size of the continental United States, Australia has one-tenth the population but the world's oldest fossils, oldest aboriginal culture and eight of the world's 10 deadliest snakes.

"There are still so many areas of Australia that are still so remote. It's like no other place on the planet," said Cover, who spent about three weeks in Australia studying its gorges.

Animals began arriving in the aquarium's cavernous brick warehouse in January last year. About 30 of the 100 species to be displayed have arrived.

Australia has been restricting animal exports for about 20 years, so the aquarium had to cast a wide net for the exhibit.

"They want to keep their diversity and protect their rare species," said John Seyjagat, curator for the Australian exhibit.

Some animals are being imported from Australia, but many are bought or borrowed from U.S. breeders and other aquariums.

Freshwater crocodiles arrived from a research park in Darwin, Australia, and the lungfish came from a fish farm in Queensland. But the fruit bat came from the Boston Science Museum, the pig-nosed turtle from a San Francisco aquarium and the shingleback skink -- a lizard that looks something like a pine cone -- from a private breeding facility in California.

Night creatures

One reason for the early arrivals is that it's easier and cheaper to ship crocodiles and fish when they're juveniles -- 3 inches to a foot long -- than shipping them as 6- or 8-foot-long adults.

Overall, the aquarium estimates the price tag for buying and shipping the animals at $250,000.

Once they're in Baltimore, their care and feeding can be complicated.

The storage room used to house the parrots, for example, must be kept at 80 degrees. The crocodiles need ultraviolet light to metabolize calcium in their diet, so a specific mix of fluorescent bulbs and spotlights bathes their warehouse tanks.

Aquarium staffers isolate the animals for 30 to 60 days before placing them in tanks with other animals, testing blood and fecal matter to ensure that they are healthy.

Federal health laws require imported birds and mammals to be quarantined for at least 30 days to minimize health threats.

Then there is a matter of diet. Freshwater crocodiles survive on pieces of chicken, fish and mice. (No, they're not fed alive to the crocodiles.) But the grasshoppers served to the lizards must be supplemented with calcium to ensure that the lizards get enough of the mineral.

Cover said the pig-nosed turtle, water dragon and blue-tongued skink like dandelions from his back yard.

"It's been a learning experience for all of us," he said.

Aquarium officials based the mixture of animals on a number of factors, including their diets, reputations for aggression and even sleeping habits. The koala's nocturnal habits, for example, kept it out of the exhibit because it sleeps most of the day. "Koalas are attractive animals, but you have to be out at night to see them," Cover said.

Even so, not all of the selected animals might work out. A 5-foot freshwater crocodile has been dubbed "Crazy Sheila" because of its inability to get along with its fellow amphibians.

The sand-colored Sheila, who stared menacingly from an isolated tank last week, might wind up at an alligator farm in St. Augustine, Fla., that breeds crocodiles, Cover said.

Although biologists know a lot about animal behavior patterns en masse, individual animals can be as difficult to predict as people, Cover said.

"You try to make for an environment that they will be used to, but no matter what you do, each individual has its own personality," he said.

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