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Tennessee Aquarium opens new permanent gallery

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Jan. 2, 2002) - Explore an underwater world where vibrantly colored sunfish float like jewels, or take a peek into a swamp nursery where baby alligators bask. Reach out and touch an ancient-looking lake sturgeon while you learn more about this "king of fishes."

Be one of the first to meet and greet some of the most unusual creatures in the Southeast when the Tennessee Aquarium opens its newest permanent gallery, Discovery Hall, March 16, 2002.

The new gallery, located on the Aquarium's third floor, will showcase some of this region's most bizarre and beautiful creatures. From the strange spatula-shaped snout of the paddlefish to the huge claws of the painted river prawn, Discovery Hall will give guests an up-close look at the animals' remarkable adaptations.

One of the most unique features of the gallery will be the lake sturgeon touch station - an area where guests can actually have a hands-on encounter with these prehistoric-looking fish that once ruled the rivers of Tennessee.

Called the "king of fishes," by the poet Henry Longfellow, these charismatic creatures can reach lengths of nearly 8 feet and weigh more than 300 pounds. Sturgeon have largely disappeared from the South due to water pollution and habitat alteration, but visitors to Discovery Hall can learn more about efforts being made to reintroduce these fish to the wild. The sturgeon touch station will be the only one of its kind in North America.

In addition to the sturgeon encounter, the gallery will also take guests to a swamp nursery where they can get eye-to-eye with adorable baby alligators. When they hatch, baby alligators are only 8 inches long, but males may grow to lengths of more than 15 feet.

Commonly found in coastal areas from the Carolinas all the way down to Florida and Louisiana, baby alligators have many challenges to overcome, even before they hatch. Predators, like raccoons, find alligator eggs an easy meal. Even after they hatch, life for these young reptiles is not easy. Eighty percent or more become victims of wading birds, raccoons, bobcats, otters, snakes, large bass and even larger alligators. However, once an alligator exceeds 4 feet in length, it is relatively safe from predators.

Discovery Hall will also feature the unusual paddlefish. Closely related to the sturgeon, paddlefish resemble sharks not only by shape, but by their skeletons as well. Both paddlefish and sharks have skeletons made of cartilage and not bone. Paddlefish have no teeth and eat by swimming through the water with their mouths held wide open, filtering tiny plants and animals, called plankton, from the water.

One of the most peculiar residents of Discovery Hall will be the enormous hellbender salamander - the largest salamander in North America. Also known as the Allegheny alligator or the devil dog, hellbenders can reach lengths of up to 29 inches. Although hellbenders have lungs, these are used to help the animal float in the water and not for breathing. They actually breathe through their moist, baggy skin. Hellbenders are found in various drainage systems and fast flowing streams in New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Other exhibits planned for this gallery include a lushly planted Pascagoula bayou, a southern spring, and a captivating tree frog exhibit.

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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 www.tnaqua.org 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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