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An Out of this World Experience at the Tennessee Aquarium's Fly River

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Dec. 24, 1997) - Travel to New Guinea where colorful rainbowfish dart below the surface of the water while water dragons explore the lush plants that overhang the river’s edge. Marvel at the adorable pig-nosed turtles and pink-bellied turtles surfacing at the Tennessee Aquarium’s new exhibit: Fly River.

Located near the equator between Asia and Australia, New Guinea is the highest tropical island in the world with mountains tall enough to support glaciers. Covering 303,090 square miles, New Guinea is famous for its spectacular mountains and infamous for its active volcanoes, which number the largest in the world.

“There’s a rich diversity of wildlife still being uncovered in New Guinea because much of the island has escaped destructive human development,” said Dave Collins, curator of forests. “Our new exhibit gives visitors a rare perspective of this beautiful, unspoiled river.”

New Guinea is also a land rich in cultures. More than 1,000 languages -- one-fifth of the world’s total languages -- are spoken. Cultural diversity is also evident in the look and lifestyle of New Guinea’s residents. The crocodile people of Sepik cut their skin in a ritualistic pattern to resemble the teeth marks of crocodiles. The Asmat people were enthusiastic headhunters . . . until recently.

But Collins is quick to point out that flora and fauna are not the only living things featured in the Fly River exhibit in the Rivers of the World Gallery: Leseur’s water dragons, black tree monitors, frilled lizards, pig-nosed turtles, pink-bellied short-neck turtles, snake-neck turtles, dwarf rainbowfish and forktail blue-eyed fish.

Australia and New Guinea are the only places in the world where these fish can be found, explained Chris Coco, curator of fishes. They come in a variety of colors from fire engine red New Guinea rainbowfish to shimmering turquoise Lake Kutubu rainbowfish. Schooling in large numbers, they feed on small crustaceans, insect larvae and some aquatic vegetation.

Speaking of feeding patterns, “Monitor lizards in New Guinea have it made,” added Collins. “They are the dominant meat-eaters because there are no mammal carnivores to compete with.” At the Aquarium the lizards mostly dine on insects, meal worms and small rodents, said Collins.

Sharing the Fly River exhibit with the lizards and turtles, are forktail blue-eyes, which are tiny fish that get their name for their characteristic blue irises. They rarely exceed two inches. Their pectoral fins are located close to their heads and the males wave them up and down in elaborate courtship displays.

The lush plants on exhibit are not only beautiful, but also useful. They serve as hiding places for both fish and reptiles. More than 1,200 species of trees and nearly 20,000 flowering plants can be found in New Guinea. Plants on exhibit include: myrmecodias, hoyas, pandanus, medinillas and dischidias. These native New Guinea plants are grown in the greenhouse “peaks” atop the Aquarium.

As recently as 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, Australia and New Guinea were connected by a land bridge. Due to glacial melting, this area is now covered by water. The Fly River originates high in the Star Mountains and winds southward along its 1,200 kilometer path to become the longest river in New Guinea.

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