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Halloween is a real scream
at the Tennessee Aquarium

These creepy crawlies are more treat than trick

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - "Oh my gosh!" a teenager screams as she spots a hairy Goliath birdeater tarantula next to a giant Peruvian centipede, roommates in sturdy steel tanks fit for a classic Houdini escape. Nearby, a woman shivers as a menacing cottonmouth gapes from beneath a rickety shack in the lifelike Cajun exhibit. Behind her, a man has just noticed the stonefish with its warty camouflage and bulging eyes. "Look at the size of that mouth!" he gasps, staring at what is widely considered the world's most venomous fish.

Want to be spooked this Halloween? Then forget the monster masks and killer costumes and head to the Tennessee Aquarium for a taste of the real thing. VENOM: Striking Beauties, the Aquarium's newest changing exhibit, features some of the world's largest, deadliest and most exotic creatures - nearly 50 different species in all.

Enter the vaulted, venomous chamber and be greeted by the deceptively delicate lionfish, whose long, sharp spines cause intense pain, swelling and even paralysis. Move on to a jewel box of blue, green and golden poison-dart frogs, some standing sentry like tiny porcelain statues, others hopping around like Mexican jumping beans. Observe long legged bullet ants - they can deliver a sting 30 times more powerful than bees - as they parade in an eerie march in their layered tunnels.

And, if you dare, come face to fang with some of the world's most venomous snakes - the agile black mamba, aggressive death adder and legendary green mamba. While you're here, watch the high-energy sea kraits whip around in a frenzied underwater dance. Feel the hairs stand up on your arms as the thick-bodied gaboon viper rouses from sleep and, lifting its arrow-shaped head, bares a set of deadly two-inch fangs, the longest of any snake in the world.

And there's more, including:
* The velvety-textured terciopelo, which has earned the distinction of biting more people than any other snake in the jungles of Latin America;
* The beautiful eyelash viper, easily recognized by the raised scales over its eyes and a tendency to lunge at its prey; and
* The Eastern coral snake, whose fatal bite can be deceiving, causing only minimal pain and swelling - at first.

It's hard not to be scared by these things that go bump in the night. Maybe it's the sheer size, or the prickly appearance, or all the slithering, creeping and crawling. Perhaps it's because they lurk in burrows, under rocks or beneath mushroom-shaped coral, waiting for their unsuspecting prey. Or maybe it's the magic, mystery and folklore surrounding these lovely but lethal oddities.

Don't worry, though - the black widow spiders, Gila monsters and Emperor scorpions are locked up tight in the VENOM gallery. A number of precautions have been taken, from the use of industrial locks and escape-proof surfaces to the purchase of powerful, and expensive, antidotes in case of a bite. The exhibits are tightly sealed during visitor hours, and only a limited number of herpetologists (snake experts) have access to the venomous varmints.

Their killer reputations, however, are often undeserved. In fact, says Dave Collins, the Aquarium's curator of forests, most venomous animals would rather bluff than bite.

"Many of these creatures are nocturnal," Collins points out. "They may attack if you surprise them but they are not out to get you.

"The single most important thing to consider is that the animal did not adapt venom as an offensive weapon," he adds. "And most of them did not adapt it as a defensive weapon. It serves two roles: to immobilize the prey without risking injury to the feeding animal, and especially for snakes, to use as a pre-digestive enzyme."


Color slides available upon request.


VENOM: Striking Beauties will be on display at the Tennessee Aquarium until January 2002. The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is the largest freshwater aquarium in the world. Built with private contributions, this non-profit educational organization is dedicated to the understanding, conservation and celebration of aquatic habitats. Admission is $11.95 per person and $6.50 per child, ages 3-12. Members enjoy unlimited visits and other benefits. To join or for program or trip information, call 267-FISH. The Aquarium is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas and is accessible to people with disabilities. For more information, call 1-800-262-0695.




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