The truth about the Aquarium’s
most infamous inhabitants
Tenn. (July 26, 2004) — Almost nothing inspires terror
like gigantic, man-eating creatures on the big screen. Tennessee
Aquarium biologists want to set the record straight: Are these
animals predators or pushovers?
Known for their razor sharp teeth, moray eels have a reputation
for being able to snap the hand off an unsuspecting diver who
ventures too close to an eel’s rocky lair. Hollywood further
exacerbated the fear of eels with films like “The Princess
Bride,” in which Princess Buttercup floated in waters
infested with “shrieking” eels. And in the 1977
thriller, “The Deep,” the audience is horrified
when an eel pulls a terrified Jacqueline Bisset under a rock,
then lurches toward the audience.
screen screams aside, the eel certainly looks the part of being
deadly because its many-toothed mouth is constantly opening
and closing in a menacing manner. In reality the eel is simply
breathing. Unlike other bony fish, morays have small round gill
openings that don't pump water. The opening/closing mouth action
pulls oxygenated water over its gills.
are near-sighted, generally shy and avoid contact with humans,”
said Thom Demas, Aquarium curator of fishes. “The animals
on exhibit are, in essence, wild, so to ensure diver safety
during feeding times, they are fed with long tongs.”
makes it clear that eels aren’t “out to get you.”
Most negative eel encounters happen when an unlucky diver is
poking around in the rocks. In the wild moray eels can be found
in just about every reef community of the Indian, Pacific and
Atlantic oceans, and range in size from 2 to 10 feet long.
the Aquarium eels inhabit the Gulf of Mexico exhibit, where
they can be seen peeking out from the stone on the left side
of the tank or in the mangrove roots.
Imagine a school of saber-toothed super fish hatched from a
canister of eggs on a sunken ship. Mix in some genetic engineering
gone awry and you’ve got the makings of a really bad film,
according to critics: “Piranha II.”
their sharp teeth and lightning speed make piranha well equipped
for their carnivorous diet, they are relatively timid and rarely
bite humans, said Carol Farmer, assistant curator of fishes.
‘vacuum’ the debris out of the Amazon exhibit, we
wear wet suits and climb right in where the piranha are swimming,”
Farmer explained. “Generally they just move politely out
of the way. They are well fed and probably don’t feel
the need to feed on us or their tank mates.”
in the wild it’s a very different story, she said. “During
the dry season, piranha may attack a wounded creature and reportedly
can strip a 140-pound animal down to bones in just a few minutes.
Piranha attacks on humans during the rainy season are extremely
rare. Amazon natives are cautious, however, and avoid the water
if they have open wounds or when animals are being slaughtered
lurk in the Amazon River exhibit at the Aquarium.
Known as the “wolf of the sea,” barracuda have gotten
a bum rap as a terrifying toothy menace. In another eco-sea-horror
movie, “The Lucifer Project,” the drinking water
of an entire city is mixed with a chemical that makes people
aggressive. By accident the water flows into the sea and turns
a school of barracudas into man-eating monsters.
the great barracuda has a mouthful of menacing-looking teeth
with large canines in the front and razor sharp slicing teeth
further back,” said Rob Mottice, acquisitions manager
at the Aquarium. “The eyes are extremely large because
they are primarily sight feeders, and when you’re snorkeling
or diving they will sometimes follow you through the water just
to see what you’re doing.”
the long, cylinder-shaped barracuda has been known to attack
humans on rare occasions, Mottice reported it’s usually
spear fishermen who dangle their catches from their belts while
they continue to hunt. Or the barracuda will sometimes accidentally
bite the diver when going after the fish he just speared.
feeding barracuda is something best left to the professionals
like the divers at the Aquarium,” Mottice added. “You
really can't be sure that the aim of the barracuda won't be
off just enough to take your fingertip along with the bait you’re
offering. Divers feed the barracuda from the top of the Gulf
exhibit – a good distance away from their tank mates as
well as the divers.”
two 4-foot barracudas can be spotted at the top of the Gulf
of Mexico exhibit at the Aquarium.
Dumped down a toilet 12 years ago, lonely alligator “Ramon”
calls the city sewers home. Ramon devours the animal remains
of a chemical plant’s experiment involving growth hormones,
then swells at an enormous rate, with an equally enormous appetite.
You can guess what happens to the townspeople in the 1980 classic
from the gigantic eco-monster portrayed in the film but equally
impressive in the flesh, alligators can grow to be 16 feet in
length, though wild specimens over 12 feet are rare. The alligator
is an extremely fast, agile predator. Its long, muscular tail
helps it swim easily through swamps, marshlands, rivers and
Walder, assistant curator of forests at the Aquarium, can attest
to the speed and stealth of the 9-year-old female alligator
in the Delta Swamp exhibit. “We generally feed her with
a VERY long set of tongs in order to keep a healthy distance,”
he said. “She enjoys a meal of thawed rats and eats once
crocodiles and alligators are carnivores (meat eaters),”
explains Aquarium Herpetologist Tim Schmiedehausen. “In
the wild they eat fish, birds, snakes, frogs, carrion and any
mammals they can catch.”
conceded that crocodiles can be more aggressive than alligators,
but a deranged croc chasing after humans is a “crock.”
three dwarf crocodiles in the Zaire River exhibit at
the Aquarium eat mainly rats, mice and fish.
can also see baby gators in the swamp nursery in Discovery Hall.
Listen closely to the “chirping” sounds in the gallery.
That’s the baby gators talking. Their favorite meal is
“Anaconda” is a giant-man-eating-snake-in-the-jungle
thriller with Jon Voight hamming it up as a monster poacher
in the 1997 film. The slithery villain is a supernaturally gifted
critter that can swallow a man whole, yet still maintains the
fitness to move at the speed of sound. And in the case of poor
Mr. Voight, the snake gets a powerful case of queasiness and
– well – regurgitates him.
this particular anaconda taking us on this slimy ride is 60
rarely grow longer than 30 feet,” scoffed Walder. “Even
when anacondas attempt to swallow humans they aren’t very
successful at it,” he joked.
Walder agreed, these snakes can be quite intimidating. Anacondas
are one of the largest snakes in the world – weighing
more than 550 pounds, although most weigh only a few hundred
pounds, and 12 inches in diameter. And they can put the squeeze
on you tighter than a vice.
its dinner, the anaconda will lie coiled up in a shallow pool
or at a river’s edge. When an unsuspecting animal comes
by to take a drink of water, the snake strikes. It bites the
animal with its sharp teeth, and holds on with its powerful
jaws as it drags the victim beneath the water.
don’t use venom to kill. Instead, they wrap their muscular
bodies around their victims and squeeze. Eventually the prey’s
heart can longer pump blood and it essentially expires due to
a heart attack.
swallows its dinner whole. It starts with the head so that the
legs fold up and the animal is swallowed more easily. Its jawbones
are loosely connected to the skull giving the anaconda the amazing
ability to consume prey much bigger than its head. Wave-like
muscle contractions in the snake’s throat crush the prey
even further while guiding it towards the digestive system.
Rivers of the World gallery at the Aquarium contains a beautiful
Nothing set the standard for thrillers like the 1975 shark saga
“Jaws.” Police Chief Brody and ichthyologist Hooper
join forces to catch and kill the formidable great white that
not only has the nerve to attack and kill the townsfolk, but
also succeeds in killing tourism in their resort town.
film frightened millions of moviegoers out of the water.
sharks are regarded as the essence of maritime horror, eternally
hungry, ready and willing to devour any living creature in their
path, the facts are that shark attacks against humans are uncommon,
and fatal attacks are very rare.
are lots of myths and misconceptions about sharks and shark
bites,” said Mottice. “Sharks should be respected,
not feared. Sharks do much less harm to people than people do
to sharks. Tens of thousands of sharks are killed each year.
People are more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark.
Many shark species are now threatened.
bonnethead sharks in the Aquarium’s Gulf of Mexico exhibit
versions of the better-known hammerhead shark.
Downloadable images: http://www.tnaqua.org/Newsroom/Photo_library.asp