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Tennessee Aquarium "Decaders"
The creatures and people who opened the aquarium

They've been with the Tennessee Aquarium from the very beginning and are as much a part of the building as the peaks. They're the charter members, charter volunteers, charter employees - and, yes, even some charter animals. *

At last count, there are 3,635 charter Aquarium members. "These amazing people believed in the Aquarium's mission before we even opened our doors," said Mara-Lynne Waite, manager of the Aquarium's membership department. "And their steadfast devotion to the Aquarium and its programs enables us to continue to be a world-class Aquarium."

The Aquarium's charter volunteers number 25, and they have donated a staggering 31,705 hours over the past 10 years as divers, docents, horticulturists and teaching assistants. "Without the dedication of loyal volunteers, many tasks just wouldn't get done," said Julie Piper, volunteer manager. "Despite their other interests and obligations, our charter volunteers have helped make the Aquarium the best it can be for the past 10 years."

By the end of 2002, nearly 50 employees will have worked at the Aquarium for a decade. "That's nearly one-third of our workforce," said Charlie Arant, Aquarium president. "From maintenance to marketing to animal husbandry, our staff members go out of their way to make sure the Aquarium continues to inspire wonder and appreciation for the natural world."

There are more than 9,000 animals that swim, fly and crawl under the Aquarium's peaks, so we won't name all the creatures who have been here for 10 years. But here are some of the visitors' favorites:

North American river otters: Found in the Cove Forest on level 4, these two otters are the only mammals at the Aquarium. The otter's dense, water-shedding fur, strong swimming skills and keen underwater eyesight make it a well-adapted aquatic animal. It can remain submerged up to four minutes before coming up for air.

Alligator snapping turtle: Several alligator snapping turtles, the largest exceeding 150 pounds, live in the Delta Country gallery on level 3. The largest freshwater turtle in North America, the alligator snapper gets its name from its strong jaws and shell ridges that resemble an alligator's back. It lures its prey by lying in wait, wriggling its pink, worm-like tongue. Alligator snapping turtles can stay submerged almost an hour before coming up for air.

Giant catfish: The three big blues in the Nickajack Lake exhibit are among the largest catfish on exhibit in the U.S., with the largest one weighing more than 100 lbs. This fat cat was caught in 1992 in a driving rain and snowstorm in the Tennessee Valley Authority pumped-storage reservoir atop Raccoon Mountain by Aquarium biologist Rob Mottice. The cats are more than 10 years old, and although many visitors assume the largest cats are males, they are really big mamas who can produce up to 100,000 eggs at a time. (Female catfish are usually much larger than males.)

Beluga sturgeon: A primitive species dating back to the Jurassic period 150 million years ago, the Beluga sturgeon has bony plates, not scales, and is made mostly of cartilage. In the wild, it may live for more than 100 years, reach 20 feet in length and weigh more than 2,000 pounds. The gigantic specimen in the Volga River exhibit on level 2 came from the Soviet Union. It swims almost constantly in a counterclockwise direction, traveling an average of 10 miles a day - which means he's swum approximately 365,000 miles in the past 10 years. The finest caviar in the world comes from the Beluga sturgeon.

Southern stingray: Contrary to popular belief, a ray will not sting unless someone steps directly on it, at which point it will whip its tail around and protect itself by jabbing with its sharp barbs. The southern stingray is a ghostly creature, with large pectoral fins that give the impression it's flying through water. During feeding times at the Aquarium, you can see the stingray slurping up squid and smelt directly from the hands of volunteer divers. The rays have more than doubled in size - from 1 foot to 3 feet across - since they arrived at the Aquarium.

Great barracuda: This long, cylinder-shaped fish has been known to attack men, but usually when provoked by a spear or other weapon, or when a diver is wearing flashy jewelry that could be mistaken for a small, shiny fish. The two four-foot specimens in the Gulf of Mexico exhibit were just 14 inches long when they came from the Florida Keys just before the Aquarium opened in 1992. They are high-strung and will dart in panic if about to be caught.

Red piranha: Sharp teeth and an ability to swim with lightning speed make these red and gold Amazon River inhabitants well-equipped for their carnivorous diet. As small as silver dollars when they first arrived at the Aquarium, they've grown to the size of a dinner plate. One of the most widely distributed species in the Amazon Basin, the red piranha can quickly tear one of its own to pieces if it is injured by a fisherman's hook. Still, according to the biologists at the Aquarium, the reds are among the calmest of the piranhas and are only a threat to other fish in the tank, not their human caretakers. Piranhas lurk in the Amazon River exhibit on level 2.

Blue tang: These graceful, flat fish are bright yellow when born but turn blue or purple when fully grown. The blue tangs in the Gulf of Mexico exhibit swim together in a school as they would in the wild. The white triangle on the blue tang's tail is more than just part of its costume; it's actually a dangerous spine used for protection. The blue tangs at the Aquarium have tripled in size since they were collected in the Florida Keys.

Crevalle jacks: The jacks are easy to spot in the Gulf of Mexico exhibit because of their size and schooling behavior. They seldom linger in one spot. Most often you will find these silvery fish "running" at top speed. Although these fierce, stubborn and dynamic gamefish are three feet long now, they were only six inches when they made their home at the Aquarium 10 years ago.

(*See media source list for contact information about the people who can talk about their experiences at the Aquarium over the past 10 years. We're sorry we can't provide an animal source for your story. Although we imagine the animals could tell some interesting stories of their own - after looking at millions of visitor antics over the last 10 years - we've been unsuccessful in obtaining quotes from them.)


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