On Oct. 27, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI) cut the ribbon on its flagship freshwater field station located on the banks of the Tennessee River, just downstream from downtown Chattanooga.
The 14,000-square-foot facility was built around an environmentally conscious design that comprehensively serves its mission of conservation from the roots of the native plants used in its landscaping to the rainfall-directing slope of its roof. Here’s a rundown of some of the new field station’s most interesting features, both architectural and scientific.
The First Floor
• Since its origins 20 years ago, TNACI has operated numerous propagation and recovery efforts to save imperiled Southeastern fish species, including Lake Sturgeon and Southern Appalachian Brook Trout. The field station’s first floor Propagation Room will serve as the new home for these programs, which previously were housed in numerous satellite facilities.
This space, one of the largest in the station, also will house artificial stream systems (pictured). Here, scientists will be able to alter water temperatures to measure the impact of human-induced environmental changes on sensitive aquatic species such as salamanders.
• To help illustrate and monitor its efficiency, the science center’s lobby is equipped with a wall-mounted “energy dashboard” that tracks energy and water use throughout the building.
• The Flex Lab, located on the building’s first floor, will be used for education programs targeting high school students, teachers, conservation professionals, ecotourism guides and Aquarium members. Through its connection to EPB’s Gigabit network, students attending workshops and other programming in this space will be able to connect and communicate, via remote live feed, with conservation scientists in the field.
In addition to serving as a customizable teaching space, this laboratory will be able to engage in sophisticated scientific research, such as using environmental DNA analysis to determine which fish species have been swimming in the Tennessee River.
The Second Floor
• The open floor plan and low desks in the second floor office space let TNACI’s staff of dedicated conservation scientists enjoy unobstructed — and inspirational — views of the Tennessee River as well as make best use of abundant natural light via overhead skylights. The office is spacious enough to accomodate undergraduate and graduate students who are mentored at the facility during summertime research experiences.
• TNACI’s dedicated Geographic Information Systems Lab, also on the second floor, is where data about aquatic animals from field studies and other research facilities is collected and stored in a “living database” which will be available to other researchers online. This scalable data can be converted into maps and graphics that help illustrate the extraordinary biodiversity of the Southeast as well as the environmental conditions that place it in peril. The lab is equipped with a plotter that can print maps and other large images for educational research purposes.
TNACI’s GIS staff is currently wrapping up work on a grant-funded program that integrated all known locations for more than 1,000 fish, crayfish and mussel species in the Southeast to identify the priority areas of biodiversity. Almost all of these ecological hotspots are located in the Mobile, Tennessee and Cumberland river drainages.
• TNACI’s Genetics Laboratory is fitted out with equipment to conduct research examining differences between separate populations and between species. This will help serve a primary initial research goal of determining how many aquatic animals live in the Southeast, which has been described as an “underwater rainforest” thanks to biodiversity levels that are unrivaled in the temperate world. The work done in this lab also will help TNACI scientists manage reintroduction programs by identifying individuals with high degree of genetic diversity, which will help them to better withstand environmental changes.
• The Morphology Lab will help TNACI staff to scientifically describe new species and to compare and source differences in individuals within the same species. This work will help scientists understand how species respond, physiologically, to changes in their environment, such as turtle shells that become more smaller and more streamlined in areas with faster flowing water.
• The TNACI conference room provides a stunning view of the Tennessee River and Williams Island, as well as the riparian zone, which was left intact during construction to stabilize the bank and filter water before it enters the river.
• The Writer’s Room provides a quiet space for staff members to collect their thoughts. It can also serve as office space for visiting faculty on sabbatical.
• Rock walls on the building exterior were intentionally left rough-hewn to provide shelter for small reptiles, such as skinks and anoles.
• Throughout the building design process, TNACI staff emphasized water in all their architectural and landscaping choices. The roof is sloped to direct the water into a 6,000-gallon cistern, where it can then be reused inside to flush the toilets and to irrigate the area around the field station.
• Overflow from the cistern will enter a “reflecting pool,” which will contain native aquatic plants and fish by next spring.
• Past this pond, the water will enter a series of bio-retention areas — constructed wetlands — before flowing into a natural wetland, which was enlarged during construction, and finally into the Tennessee River. Water from the propagation rooms can also be released into t his man-made stream bed to let fish waste be treated naturally by native plants rather than being sent through the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant.
• Impervious surfaces around the facility have been minimized. What roads exist at the site are gravel and all slope gently toward the wetlands to ensure rainfall is filtered before entering the river.
• The entry road to the facility was altered from a culvert to a bridge to allow natural fish passage to and from the existing wetland. Although it looks dry in these pictures — a consequence of the region’s current exceptional drought — the wetland will occasionally retain water throughout the year. Back-channel habitats such as these are critical spawning locations for big river fish, and ensuring this wetland remained connected to the Tennessee River was a design priority.
• The plants used at the site were chosen from a floral survey of the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge and Tennessee River Gorge to ensure the landscaping was an accurate model of nearby native environments. Despite the incredibly dry conditions this summer, TNACI staff opted not to artificially water these plants to prevent the growth of invasive species and to help naturally weed out individuals that weren’t drought-resistant.