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Love bites:
courtship isn’t always easy in the animal world

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Jan. 20, 2006) – Few humans would disagree that dating can be rough, but for some members of the animal kingdom, love really bites. Visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium can get a glimpse of love, aquarium style, and learn more about the animal mating game.

Like humans, animals often engage in elaborate courtship rituals.

Dancing, colorful attire and displays of strength are not limited to human beings. Animal courtship rituals can be wild, mild or completely bizarre.

Love bites
Sharks may not be the first animal that comes to mind when the word romance is mentioned. (If they are, perhaps your dating life is worse than you thought!) However, sharks do engage in some interesting courtship behavior.

Although they are fish, sharks do not reproduce by spawning. Sharks mate, which means the eggs of the female are internally fertilized by the male. It is quite easy to discern which sharks are male and which are female. Male sharks have claspers – two finger-like, fleshy appendages found on the underside of a male shark at the base of its tail. Female sharks do not have claspers.

During the mating season, a male shark will approach a female and begin to engage in what researchers call “ritualized swimming.” This means that the shark will begin to swim in a repetitive pattern.

The male shark will approach the female, bite and hold her pectoral fin to help secure the union. (Pectoral fins are those located in the center of the underside of a shark’s body.) The male will then attempt to try to turn the female on her side and insert one of his claspers into her cloaca. Female sharks usually bear the tell-tale bite marks of the mating courtship.

The Secret Reef exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium is home to male and female sand tiger and sandbar sharks. “We would certainly like to have our sharks breed in this exhibit,” said Thom Demas, Tennessee Aquarium curator of fishes.

Demas also explained that while female sharks may exhibit bite marks as a result of breeding behavior, the wounds are quite superficial and heal quickly.

For a really big look at sharks, visitors can cross the street and check out “Sharks 3D” at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX Theater. The film gives viewers a front-row seat to feeding frenzies, breeding behaviors and an encounter with a great white shark.

Viewers will witness sharks as they really are – not wicked man-eating creatures, but wild, fascinating and highly endangered animals.

Being Mr. Mom
For seahorses, courtship results in a pregnant male. That’s right; it is the male seahorses that carry the babies.

It all begins with a slow, dance-like promenade through the sea grass. The male, head bowed, performs an elaborate dance around the female, often wrapping his tail around her or mimicking her movements. The male often changes color, his body becoming lighter while his spine area darkens. During this mysterious mating dance, the male opens his empty pouch to the female. The female then raises her head and intertwines her tail with his.

“The ritual can last up to nine hours and resembles a sort of ballet,” Demas said. “The seahorse pair travels up the water column as she transfers eggs to the male seahorse’s pouch on his abdomen, where he fertilizes the eggs and goes through the pregnancy.”

Most seahorse pairs are monogamous – once a male and female form a pair bond, they mate exclusively during the breeding season.

Courtship in the swamp
It’s not Valentine’s Day that gets the Aquarium’s creatures cruising on the love boat. Changes in temperature and light cycles, along with some deeply ingrained instincts, can trigger an upsurge in courtship rituals.

Some of the most interesting courtship rituals take place in the Aquarium’s Mississippi Delta Country, home to many freshwater turtles. Admittedly, turtles may not be the first animals many associate with romance, but they’ve survived thousands of years, so they must be doing something right.

Male red ear sliders and southern painted turtles go to great lengths to express their intent. With Edward Scissorshands-like appendages, the persistent male swims in front of or just above the female and waves his long nails in her face.

The male map turtle is a little subtler in his display. With a head bobbing routine, at varying speeds and occasionally with a little cheek-to-cheek caressing, he turns the head of an interested female.

As with many reptiles, the temperature of the turtle’s nest determines the sex of the hatchlings; lower temperatures produce males and higher temperatures produce females.

It takes a sharp and patient eye and good timing to see the Aquarium’s courtship displays. Some species may court for an hour or two in the morning, and then spend the rest of the afternoon searching for food, basking on a log or just swimming around.

Bring your sweetie to the Aquarium to get a glimpse of love, aquarium style and take advantage of our “Finny Valentine” discount. Sign up for the Tennessee Aquarium e-newsletter and print out the Finny Valentine coupon. The coupon qualifies participants for adult admission for two to the Aquarium for only $30. Add an IMAX movie for only $5 more per adult.

*Any two adults qualifies as a couple
*One coupon required per couple
*May not be combined with any other offer
*Good only Feb. 10 - Feb. 20, 2006

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The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder and appreciation for the natural world. Admission is $17.95 per adult and $9.50 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 $7.95 per adult and $5.50 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $22.95 for adults and $13.50 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.

ONLINE press kits & downloadable images: http://www.tnaqua.org/Newsroom/Newsroom.asp

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