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Visitors Will Be "Safely Scared" in New Tennessee Aquarium Gallery

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - Enter a vaulted chamber where a black mamba lies draped over a tree branch and beautiful poison dart frogs shimmer like living jewels in colors of green, red and gold. Step into a futuristic space of danger and intrigue, where natural habitats and eerie special effects showcase some of the world's deadliest animals.

On March 11, visitors can do all this and more when VENOM: Striking Beauties replaces the popular Jellies display as the Aquarium's second changing exhibit. VENOM offers more than shock value; it also helps visitors develop a new appreciation for these often-misunderstood animals.

"Most of these creatures use venom as means to capture prey, not as a weapon," says Jackson Andrews, director of operations and husbandry at the Tennessee Aquarium. "Instead of relying on venom as a defense, many of these animals have developed strategies that help them remain hidden. This exhibit allows visitors to experience the secret world of venomous animals."

Austere design elements and "virtual" habitats create a mood unlike any other at the Aquarium. Visitors will experience an odd mix of danger and security as they peer into futuristic, brushed-aluminum exhibits trimmed in steel and tightly secured with industrial locks. With a variety of large and small exhibits, and nearly 50 species of venomous fish, snakes and other creatures, VENOM exposes visitors to a world few people have ever seen up close.

The gallery will house some of the biggest, deadliest and most exotic creatures known to man. Visitors who stop at the African Rainforest exhibit can try to outstare the penetrating gaze of the agile black mamba and watch in awe as the gaboon viper flashes its 2-inch-long fangs (the longest fangs of any snake in the world). In the misty South American Rainforest, the brilliantly colored eyelash viper can be found stretched out on a limb near the terciopelo, whose claim to fame is the fact that it bites more people than any other venomous snake in Latin America. And a freestanding tank will spotlight the sea krait, a very active species of snake known for its high-energy antics.

VENOM, however, isn't just a showcase for serpents. Visitors will be "safely scared" by such oddities as the Emperor scorpion (one of the world's largest), the Goliath birdeater tarantula (yes, it can make a meal of a small bird), and the majestic lionfish, a beautiful species that flares lethal spines when threatened. A cross-section of burrows allows desert creatures, including the Gila monster, Arizona hairy scorpion and beaded lizard, to safely co-exist. Secure, stainless steel columns house smaller animals, like cow killer wasps, the Giant Peruvian centipede and one of this country's most toxic spiders, the black widow.

Interactive touch screens and graphic panels also acquaint guests with topics ranging from Cherokee legends about venom to tips on snakebite first aid and antivenoms, to what venomous animals live in our own backyards.

Because of the potentially dangerous nature of the exhibit animals, a number of precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of visitors. The aluminum, steel and slick laminate surfaces in the gallery will deter unruly insects from climbing the walls, and all air supply grills are screened. The exhibit also has solid ceilings and closed back walls. At feeding time, heavy steel doors will keep out everyone but authorized staff members.

Although these animals can be dangerous, they are not out to get humans. In fact, they are quite beneficial in controlling rats, insects and other pests. Some venomous species are even being studied for possible medical use; research indicates that venom may, among other things, relieve arthritis pain, treat brain disorders, and prevent clots in stroke victims.

Despite its killer reputation, venom is most often reserved as a tool for capturing dinner. "All of these animals have one thing in common - they do not want to interact with any potential predator," says Dave Collins, curator of forests. "They're going to do everything they can to avoid a confrontation - hide, flee, bluff. If none of that works, some have adapted bright coloration to ward off would-be attackers."

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 enjoyment of the Tennessee River and related ecosystems. 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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