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The truth about the Aquarium’s most infamous inhabitants

CHATTANOOGA, 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?

Moray Eels
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.

Big 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.

“Eels 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.”

Demas 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.

In 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.”

Although 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.

“To ‘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.”

But 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 in waterways.

Piranhas 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.

“Certainly 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.”

Although 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.

“Intentionally 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.”

The two 4-foot barracudas can be spotted at the top of the Gulf of Mexico exhibit at the Aquarium.

Alligators and Crocodiles
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 “Alligator.”

Far 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 lakes.

Rico 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 a week.”

All 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.”

Schmiedehausen conceded that crocodiles can be more aggressive than alligators, but a deranged croc chasing after humans is a “crock.”

The three dwarf crocodiles in the Zaire River exhibit at the Aquarium eat mainly rats, mice and fish.

Visitors 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 crickets.

“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.

And this particular anaconda taking us on this slimy ride is 60 feet long!

“Anacondas rarely grow longer than 30 feet,” scoffed Walder. “Even when anacondas attempt to swallow humans they aren’t very successful at it,” he joked.

But, 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.

To catch 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.

Anacondas 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.

An anaconda 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.

The Rivers of the World gallery at the Aquarium contains a beautiful yellow anaconda.

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.

The film frightened millions of moviegoers out of the water.

While 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.

“There 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.

The bonnethead sharks in the Aquarium’s Gulf of Mexico exhibit are smaller versions of the better-known hammerhead shark.

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The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder and appreciation for the natural world. Admission is $14 per adult and $7.50 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 $7.75 per adult and $5.25 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $18 for adults and $10.50 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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