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You Can Fool Mother Nature
Tennessee Aquarium features winter under glass

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Oct. 6, 2000) - Cold, dreary weather may put a damper on outdoor activities, but winter is a great time to soak up the sights in the Tennessee Aquarium's forest under glass.

The Aquarium's Cove Forest exhibit, one of only a handful of indoor deciduous forests, is a modern marvel. Not only does this exhibit recreate an entire ecosystem, it also undergoes seasonal changes just like a real cove forest.

Creating four distinct seasons in the Cove may seem like fooling with Mother Nature, but it's really mechanical manipulation that helps us mimic the magic of nature's winter wonderland.

It's not as simple as just turning on the air conditioner to make it cold; many specialized systems work together to bring the outside indoors. For example, the air temperature in the Cove Forest in the winter is only six degrees warmer than the outside air. This is accomplished by allowing outside air to enter the exhibit through open vents along the exhibit walls. Also, the large mechanical vents at the top of the glass peaks admit various amounts of cool air. These same vents are used in the spring and summer to allow warm air to escape and keep the Cove Forest cool. Manipulation of the exhibit's air system and the presence of cold outside air create natural winter temperatures in the Cove. Temperatures in the upper 20s are not unheard of in the exhibit during the dead of winter.

However, it isn't enough to simply cool the air to give the illusion of winter. The exhibit's designers wanted to duplicate every aspect of a mountain forest, right down to the fog. In the real cove forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, fall and winter usher in a great deal of fog. At the Aquarium, a high pressure misting system atomizes water to 1/10th the diameter of a human hair, creating a dense fog. The fog hovers in the exhibit, helping maintain the high humidity that the native plants need and adding a nice visual effect. The fog also helps keep the Cove cool in the summer. To add even more realism, the exhibit's air vents are hidden in artificial trees and rocks. This creates a gentle breeze that causes branches and leaves to sway, helping keep the trees and shrubs healthy by maintaining the plants' elasticity.

The wide variety of plant life is one of the most striking features of the Cove. There are dozens of species of ferns, mosses, wildflowers, shrubs, vines and trees. Christine Bock, lead horticulturist, has quite a challenge dealing with the four seasons in this indoor forest.

"It is truly amazing to see an indoor exhibit of this size go through the changing colors of autumn and winter's shedding of leaves, as well as new colorful flower blooms popping up around every corner in the spring," Bock said.

Creating this seasonal atmosphere comes with its own set of problems, however. In the summer, temperatures in an enclosed greenhouse can become quite high. Manipulation of the air system and the use of fog alleviate most of the summer discomfort for the animals and visitors, but that's not enough for the plants. In a real cove forest, soil temperatures would rarely exceed 60°F. In the Aquarium's forest exhibit, the planters for the trees and shrubs are shallow, and soil temperatures could easily rise to 80-90°F without intervention. To prevent this, chilled water lines were buried inside the planter beds to keep the soil temperature below 60° F. These same water lines are used in the winter to carry warm water to help keep plant roots from freezing.

All of these mechanical manipulations allow the Cove Forest to undergo the cycle of seasons, just like a real forest. Even the birds in the exhibit are fooled. In the fall the birds' singing becomes quiet as breeding and nesting cease. Winter - after the trees have shed most of their leaves and vines are dormant - is an excellent time to view the bird collection.

The Cove Forest is home to approximately 43 birds, representing 21 species. Visitors have a much better opportunity to spot individual birds like the male rose-breasted grosbeak, male indigo bunting and the cedar waxwing. Many of the birds in the Cove are neotropical migrants, which means that in nature these birds will leave the Southeast and fly to Central and South America for the winter because of weather and dwindling food supplies. At the Aquarium the birds are given plenty of food and shelter, so they don't feel the need to fly their elaborate coop.

Whether the weather is blustery or balmy, come check out the Aquarium's forest under glass to appreciate the wonder of Mother Nature inside.

"If just one person can come to the Aquarium and get a glimpse of the wonder, beauty and complexity of nature in our re-creation of it, then it has all been worth it," Bock said.

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 adult and $6.50 per child, ages 3-12. 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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