Outback mates

They come from the land Down Under -1,800 exotic critters that have been moving into the aquarium's Aussie exhibit before next week's opening.


In Penthouse B, high atop the National Aquarium in Baltimore's Australian exhibit, blue-shirted personnel follow the posted rule: "Start announcing yourself to the bats." Six gray-headed fruit bats, the new exhibit's only mammals, sway inside their cage. They don't have the people-coming-into-their-space thing down yet.

Hi, guys.

Hi, bats.

Hi, babies.

The bats seem remotely satisfied, but they are still adjusting to their new digs. In October, they became the first tenants in the $74.6 million "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes," the aquarium's largest expansion in its 24-year history. After five years of planning (and watching a scheduled summer opening come and go), aquarium officials plan to open the hand-carved, climate-ever-so-controlled exhibit Dec. 16, when the first of perhaps 400,000 yearly visitors will step into the replicated river gorge on Pier 3.

More than 1,800 animals representing 120 species native to Australia will be on display, including frilled dragon lizards, lungfish, pig-nosed turtles, kookaburras and the bats -- once they get comfortable enough to shinny out of their cage. After the bats, the aquarists hauled in freshwater crocodiles also indigenous to Australia's Northern Territory -- a land mimicked in a glassy, 120-foot "frustum" -- a sort of funky cousin to a pyramid.

Before the opening of the aquarium's newest frustum, we tagged along with the blue-shirted personnel as they installed animals, while other aquarists and herpetologists tended to future tenants in the aquarium's private warehouse in Fells Point.

As required, we announced ourselves to the bats.

The Australian exhibit's dominating rock canyon is actually concrete and sculpted to simulate a gorge, with fake and real branches (purposely burned for that charred look) forming log jams. There are enough reptilian basking ledges (artificially heated) and enough bird nooks to keep things hopping. And, oddly enough, mousetraps on the floor. "Some animals we like in here -- and some we don't," says spokeswoman Molly Foyle.

Inside the exhibit, it's toasty and toasty it shall stay at a perennial 83 degrees. The lungfish have already been brought into the tanks on the ground level, with the water temperature also stabilized at 83 degrees. Observing the lungfish for more than two minutes suggests these tenants could have been brought in any time. These "living fossils" have been known to live to 80 -- although they don't look a day over 75.

In the same tank, a pig-nosed turtle surfaces and Foyle pats its rubbery neck. "It will bite," Foyle warns. She walks to the croc tank, where No. 7 resides with its ragged tail submerged, its snout propped open. On Oct. 25, eight crocodiles were released into the tank, and soon enough, No. 7 established himself as the dominant male. He bit and pushed and thrashed weaklings and ardently courted the female crocs. Nesting could occur faster than anyone planned.

"If the crocs have too much space, they fight. Not enough space, they fight. They are the most critical issue for us," says the curator for the Australian exhibit, John Seyjagat.

To watch for croc aggression, volunteers equipped with night vision goggles and infrared flashlights watch the tank until the shifts end at midnight.

"We know the smallest male was beat upon. We've seen massive trauma to the snout," says exhibit technician Matt Evans. "We had to remove No. 8, a female. And there was talk of removing No. 7 that first week."

At this moment, No. 7 is exhibiting aggressive flotation behavior. But what would one do if witnessing the beating upon of a croc in the middle of the night in the middle of an empty aquarium? Spotlights can be turned on, which probably will startle and distract the alpha crocs. The volunteers can also call for help -- a sound alternative to physical intervention.

"Cockatoos Go Up Here" reads the sign around the bend from the croc tank. The exhibit's birds will supply color and chatter: laughing kookaburras, rosy-crested cockatoos, helmeted friarbirds, blue-faced honeyeaters and one green catbird. The catbird is 20 years old. The staff named him Mr. Catbird, and Mr. Catbird looks like he should be on a golf course in Boca Raton.

The birds will be phased in, with their first days spent in "Howdy cages" or introduction cages. Once acclimated, they will be free roaming -- except for a few species such as the predatory kookaburra, which would eat critters preferably left for viewing.

"We're bringing in the finches tomorrow," says Foyle. A hundred finches will be released.


Waiting in the wings

"One finch died," Foyle says the next day. "Tapeworm." So, the staff will "dose 'em" before the finches will be released. Better safe than, well, more dead finches.

Jack Cover is the aquarium's general curator and a Baltimore native. ("It all started with a terrarium in a rowhouse in Hampden for me.") Cover has been living the Australia project for five years.

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