Thanks to its vast, intricate network of creeks and streams twining together as they descend between ridges, Southern Appalachia is home to a stunning array of fishes, crayfishes, mollusks, and amphibians.
But for many of the millions of people whose lives are spent within sight and earshot of what scientists describe as an “underwater rainforest,” that aquatic abundance may as well be invisible.
Just in time to welcome visitors arriving for spring break, the Tennessee Aquarium will celebrate the grand opening on March 1 of Ridges to Rivers. This all-new gallery was designed, from the ground up, to shine a spotlight on Southern Appalachia’s vibrant aquatic life, which often goes unseen except by the lucky few who have the opportunity to dip their heads into a stream.
As they explore Ridges to Rivers’ dynamic, multisensory exhibits, guests will see, hear and touch — perhaps for the first time — some of the beautiful, often-charismatic species living in waterways they drive by, swim in, or even live next to.
Redline Darter (L), Rainbow Shiner (R)
“I’m incredibly excited about this gallery,” says Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education. “I snorkeled in the ocean as a kid, but it wasn’t until I was well into my graduate program that I got to snorkel in a river.
“Filmmakers have started showcasing life in rivers through documentaries, but there’s still no substitute for seeing the actual animals with your own two eyes. Ridges to Rivers offers guests the experience of what it’s like to put your head in a stream and see animals you had no idea were there.”
The new gallery replaces Discovery Hall, a group of exhibits dating back to 2002. The new displays showcase more than three dozen species of fish found from high-altitude streams through the mainstem flow of the Tennessee River. This geographic focus makes Ridges to Rivers an ideal first stop — after romping with River Otters, of course — for guests beginning their exploration of the River Journey building, which traces a raindrop’s downstream voyage from the mountains to the sea.
As they enter the gallery, guests first encounter a massive, 22-foot-long exhibit recreating the many habitats offered by mountain streams flowing into the Upper Tennessee River. With rapids rushing over and around rocks, along swift runs, and into deeper, placid pools, the exhibit’s diverse geography shows how a single stream can support an incredibly diverse array of species.
This single exhibit — the gallery’s largest — will display two dozen kinds of fish, from tiny, colorful Gilt Darters and Saffron Shiners to larger inhabitants such as Redear Sunfish and Rock Bass. Courtesy of carefully maintained and adjusted conditions in the stream, guests will be able to see fish acting as they would in nature, from nimble courtship maneuvers and defending territories to stunning seasonal color changes.
“I’m looking forward to finding ways to encourage the fish to show off things like nest building or brightening up to their breeding colors,” says Aquarist II Avery Millard. “I think the kinds of things you’ll have a chance to see in Ridges to Rivers will be pretty eye-opening.
“Hopefully, guests will realize we have fish here in the Southeast that are just as pretty as those in places like the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific Ocean.”
Common Logperch (L), Saffron Shiner (R)
Those seeking a dry-clothes approximation of lying down in an Appalachian creek can take full advantage of the new gallery’s “pop-up” exhibit. From within a hollow cylinder, guests can simulate what it’s like to get a scale-close, snorkelers-eye view of Golden Shiners, Creek Chubs, and shimmering sunfish without the need to strap on a mask.
Nearby, a small exhibit packs a big punch with a vivid demonstration of how thunderstorms — a fact of life in the temperate rainforests of Southern Appalachia — impact streams.
Thanks to clever, behind-the-scenes engineering, lucky guests at this exhibit may witness simulated squalls every quarter hour. During these programmed events, the “sunlight” dims to replicate mounting cloud cover, winds start to gust, lightning flashes, and distant thunder peals as the downpours begin.
“It’s one of those ‘surprise and delight’ moments,” says Senior Manager of Exhibit Services Jeff Worley, who designed the look and flow of the gallery.
“Not everyone will experience these ‘storms,’ but it’ll be memorable for those who do,” he adds. “It’s just an added little feature that I think will be a real highlight of your visit. If you happen to be walking by when it happens, then that’s something you’ll probably remember.”
Longtime Aquarium fans have fond memories of touching leathery-skinned Lake Sturgeon while touring Discovery Hall. With the arrival of Ridges to Rivers, laying fingers on the armored bodies of these living fossils will be an even better experience for guests and sturgeon alike.
The newly renamed Sturgeon Bend exhibit is almost three times the size of the previous touch experience and features a more open design. This updated take on a true Aquarium classic will allow even more guests to make tactile connections with a fish that can live up to 150 years and that looks much as it did in the age of the dinosaurs.
Ridges to Rivers’ abundance of diversions also includes a massive bronze sculpture of a Lake Sturgeon — ideal for climbing on to get that perfect Instagram post — and an enormous, interactive landscape mural with projections of digital animals and environmental details that react to the approach of nearby guests.
In keeping with the Aquarium’s mission to connect guests of all ages with the natural world and to think critically about their role in protecting aquatic life, the gallery has an informative mascot and guide named Clementine. Throughout the gallery, this charismatic Tangerine Darter puts in an appearance to offer up kid-friendly factoids, thought-provoking challenges, and tips for leading a more conservation-minded lifestyle.
“It’s really important to us that our visitors learn both about the important work we do to protect aquatic life at the Tennessee Aquarium, and also to be inspired to start their own conservation journey at home,” Dr. George says. “Clementine will help you do that.”
The Ridges to Rivers gallery is made possible by the generous support of: The McKee Family, The Institute of Museum and Library Services, Tennessee Valley Authority, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and Tennessee American Water.
Sketch of Sturgeon Bend exhibit by Senior Manager of Exhibit Services Jeff Worley