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Sharks Spotted in Tennessee River!
April Fool's Joke Draws Attention to Tennessee Aquarium's New Shark Exhibit

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (March 31, 2005) – For the last three days large shark fins have been spotted in the Tennessee River.

“Reactions to the shark fins in the Tennessee River range anywhere from amused to apprehensive,” said Rob Mottice, Tennessee Aquarium manager of acquisitions and shark expert. “Thanks to ‘Jaws,’ there's an eerie fascination with these predators of the deep.”

But the “predators” were actually planted as a prank for April Fool’s Day by Tennessee Aquarium staffers to build excitement about their new $30 million saltwater building, Ocean Journey, scheduled to open April 29

Aquarium biologists were quick to point out that Chattanooga-area residents have nothing to worry about. The real sharks are safely secured inside the coral reef of the new 10-story building.

“I think you could safely say that sharks would have a tough time swimming the 1,490 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Tennessee River,” added Mottice. “But for April Fool's Day we thought it would be fun to pretend sharks ‘dropped their jaws’ and headed inland when they heard they were being featured in the new building.”

The Aquarium's new saltwater experience has 10-foot sharks, fierce barracuda and graceful stingrays that glide through amazing coral formations. Other galleries showcase octopus, jellyfish and even butterflies. Shark Island, an animal encounter exhibit, has 100 feet of shoreline where visitors can touch small, harmless sharks and stingrays.

“The sight of sharks or any type of large dorsal fin protruding from the water typically spreads fear and concern, but these creatures should be appreciated more for their majesty than their menacing molars,” said Mottice, who works to dispel the misconceptions about sharks. “The reality is that it’s highly unlikely you’d ever be attacked by a shark. Sharks do much less harm to people than people do to sharks. Tens of thousands of sharks are killed each year, yet people are 250 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark.

“There are many myths about sharks, such as they are thrashing man-eating predators,” he said. “Sharks are not indiscriminate eating machines. While sharks are primarily meat eaters, different species consume different kinds of food. Some species are pretty picky. Sharks eat much less than many people believe; many go for days or even weeks between feedings.”

With thousands of sharks being killed on a daily basis, the survival of many species is now threatened, Mottice added. Although sharks are not considered endangered by the U.S. government, some regions have put in place protections for dwindling species.

“The Secret Reef and Shark Island give us the opportunity to bring people face-to-face with sharks in a meaningful way,” said Jackson Andrews, Aquarium director of operations and husbandry. “By allowing people to form a connection with these fascinating animals, we hope they will come away with a new understanding of and appreciation for sharks and the role they play in the environment.”

A variety of sharks can be found in the Aquarium’s Ocean Journey building. From the beautifully patterned epaulette and bamboo sharks in Shark Island to the sleek and toothy sand tiger and sandbar sharks seen cruising in the Secret Reef exhibit, the shark residents of Ocean Journey are very different in appearance. However, like all other sharks, they have no bones in their bodies. Instead, shark skeletons are made entirely of cartilage – the same semi-rigid material that makes up the tip of the human nose and ear.

But what makes the shark such a fearsome predator? The most obvious answer is the enormous teeth and powerful jaws clearly visible in many shark species. Both the sand tiger and sandbar sharks have large mouths with several rows of visible teeth.

“Sharks are veritable tooth factories,” said Andrews. “They lose teeth throughout their lives – some during feeding, others simply fall out. Replacement teeth line the jaw of a shark and move forward to take the place of missing teeth. The replacement rate for teeth in the front of the shark’s mouth can be as often as every two weeks. We frequently find lost teeth when we clean the exhibits that house the sand tiger and sandbar sharks, our largest shark species.”

“Beyond large” is how Mottice and Andrews describe the fictional sharks that would sport the 3- to 4-foot dorsal fins recently discovered in the Tennessee River. The largest shark ever found was the megalodon shark (Carcharodon megalodon) – the original great white shark. Megalodon was a huge shark with a body that may have reached lengths of 80 feet and large teeth that stood more than six inches high. The megalodon is extinct, but its relative, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) which rarely exceeds 20 feet in length, but is still one of the largest predatory animals in the world.

There are nearly 400 species of sharks, and they vary widely in habitat, size, features, diet and lifestyle. Sharks range from about six inches long, such as the cigar shark species, up to about 45-feet long like the whale shark, which feeds on plankton.

A variety of shark species can be found in the Aquarium’s Ocean Journey. Visitors first encounter epaulette and bamboo sharks in the Shark Island on Level 4. Guests may touch these harmless sharks and their cousins, the stingrays. Both the epaulette and bamboo sharks are small and pose no threat to humans. The toothy sand tiger sharks and the agile sandbar sharks can be seen cruising in the Secret Reef exhibit on Levels 1 and 2. Visitors might also spot the sand tiger and sandbar sharks while exploring the Undersea Cavern.

Epaulette Shark, Hemiscyllium ocellatum
The epaulette shark is a member of the carpet shark family and rarely exceeds 3.5 feet in length. It has a long, slender body that is characterized by two dark spots found over the pectoral fins. Dark, irregular spots cover the rest of the shark’s body.
These sharks are found in Australia and New Guinea. They are often seen in tide pools and prefer to live in the shallow waters of coral reefs. The epaulette shark feeds on bottom-dwelling invertebrates such as worms, shrimp and small shellfish.

Brown-banded Bamboo Shark, Chiloscyllium punctatum
The brown-banded bamboo shark is named for the coloration it has as a juvenile. Thick, chocolate-brown bands run across its body. The bands fade as the shark matures. This species also is a member of the carpet shark family. They have very small, whisker-like barbels just below each nostril that are used to locate food. These sharks feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates and crustaceans including shrimp and shellfish. Although bamboo sharks breathe oxygen in the water through their gills, the brown-banded bamboo shark has been known to survive up to 12 hours out of the water. Like the epaulette shark, bamboo sharks prefer to live in shallow water and tide pools. They are found in India, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Japan, the Philippines and northern Australia.

White Spotted Bamboo Shark, Chiloscyllium plagiosum
The white spotted bamboo shark, also a member of the carpet shark family, is recognizable by the numerous white spots found on its body. This species of bamboo shark lays eggs in thick egg cases. The eggs hatch after three months and the young are approximately 5 inches long. These animals are regularly consumed by humans and are also used in Chinese medicine. Like other carpet sharks, white spotted bamboo sharks prefer to live in shallow water near coral reefs. They are found in coastal waters near Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and India.

Sand Tiger Shark, Carcharias taurus
With its large jaws, toothy grin and powerful body, the sand tiger fits the mental image that most people have when the word “shark” is mentioned. Despite its menacing appearance, the sand tiger shark is actually quite harmless. This species of shark is often described as sluggish because they swim more slowly than other types of sharks. These sharks can be approached and are not considered a threat or a danger to humans. Sand tiger sharks are usually found on the ocean floor near shorelines. Although they are not the largest of the shark species, sand tigers can reach lengths of 10 feet and weigh more than 250 pounds. Sand tiger sharks are found in the western Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Maine to Argentina, the Atlantic coast of Europe to North Africa and in the Mediterranean Sea.

Sandbar Shark, Carcharhinus plumbeus
The sleek sandbar sharks are usually smaller than sand tigers, reaching an average length of 6.5 feet and average weight of 115 pounds. Sandbar sharks are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young. Young sandbar sharks are about 2 feet long at birth and are born in a litter that ranges in size from one to 14 pups. Young sandbar sharks remain for a time in estuaries (areas where freshwater rivers meet the ocean) and are often preyed upon by tiger and bull sharks. Sandbar sharks are important animals for commercial fishermen on the East Coast. They are harvested for their fins, flesh, skins and livers. The sandbar shark is the most abundant of the large sharks in the western Atlantic.

Louis Sohn
Shark fins placed in the TN River by Aquarium employee

Louis Sohn
Owen Morrissey and Kate Padilla of Chattanooga discuss the shark fins

Louis Sohn
A school of shark fins across the river from the Tennessee Aquarium

Louis Sohn
A pair of shark fins in the TN River

Louis Sohn
Solitary shark fin cruises the TN River

Ocean Journey Press Kit
Ocean Journey Shark Species
Ocean Journey Web Page
Ocean Journey Grand Opening Celebration


The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder and appreciation for the natural world. Admission is $17.95 per adult and $9.50 per child, ages 3-12. Each ticket purchased helps support Aquarium conservation programs. The IMAX® 3D Theater is next door to the Aquarium. Ticket prices are $7.95 per adult and $5.50 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $21.95 for adults and $12.50 for children. Advance tickets may be purchased online at or by phone at 1-800-262-0695. The Aquarium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, is a non-profit organization. Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Aquarium and IMAX are accessible to people with disabilities. Members enjoy unlimited visits and other benefits. Call 267-FISH to join.

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