Oct. 27, 2021 /PRNewswire-PRWeb/
-- From its solar water heater and rainwater collection
cistern to the buzzing meadow of native plants that serves as its
front yard, everything about the Tennessee Aquarium's
state-of-the-art field station resonates with its commitment to the
environment and freshwater conservation.
Since opening its doors on Oct. 27,
2016, this 14,000-square-foot, $6
million facility has served as the Tennessee Aquarium
Conservation Institute (TNACI) headquarters. The Conservation
Institute existed long before this grand opening, but having a
dedicated facility to serve as the nexus of the Aquarium's
conservation efforts was an important moment in its mission to
"The Aquarium had always wanted to invest more heavily in our
conservation efforts," says Dr. Anna
George, the Aquarium's vice president of conservation
science and education. "We've always focused on the rivers and
streams of the Southeast. That made us unique among other
aquariums, and opening this facility allowed us to expand our
"It was important to all of us that we not only displayed and
celebrated these animals but also did something to protect
In the first five years of operation at the new facility, TNACI
staff have tackled a sweeping scientific agenda, from spawning
nearly extinct freshwater fish and evaluating the conservation
status of Alligator Snapping Turtles to studying the impact of
microplastic debris on rivers and streams.
As the epicenter of the Aquarium's conservation work celebrates
its first significant anniversary, however, its scientists haven't
slowed their pace. During the summer and fall, TNACI staff juggled
many active projects alongside partnering organizations and
agencies throughout the region.
In September, TNACI biologists and Aquarium staff donned
wetsuits and snorkels to evaluate the health of Bridled Darters in
Holly Creek in the Northeast Georgia foothills. In addition to
surveying the Bridled Darters' population size, scientists also
collected fin samples that were sent to the University of West Alabama for further analysis.
Combined, these data will help scientists determine if this rare
fish warrants listing as an endangered species in years to
Two weeks later, TNACI's crew was in the field (and submerged)
again, this time in the pristine waters of the Tellico River near
Tellico Plains, Tenn. On this
occasion, they were in pursuit of charismatic, colorful Tangerine
Darters. These enormous — for a darter, at least — freshwater fish
aren't of any particular conservation concern, but they have an
essential role to play in saving another endangered Tennessee native: the Cracking
Like more than 70 percent of all Southeastern freshwater
mussels, Cracking Pearlymussels are endangered and at risk of
extinction in the next 100 years. Mussels are especially sensitive
to changes in water quality and have seen a massive decline in
their populations in recent decades due to habitat degradation
caused by human activity.
The mussel life cycle requires the help of freshwater fish
through a beautifully bizarre interaction that aids in their
dispersal through rivers. Female mussels that are ready to release
their larvae (baby mussels) draw in specific fish species,
sometimes using astonishingly elaborate lures. This biological
smoke and mirrors display takes various forms, from mimicking the
fish's prey to imitating the enticing motions of a potential
Once near enough, the mussels infect the duped fish with their
larvae, either by clamping their shell closed around their target
or releasing their offspring in an unavoidable cloud. After
harmlessly attaching to the fish's gills, the larvae use it as a
kind of underwater Lyft service. After a few days' ride, they
detach and sink to the waterway's bottom, enabling the otherwise
sedentary mollusks to colonize new areas.
Cracking Pearlymussels are uniquely adapted to use Tangerine
Darters to expand their range. The Tangerine Darters that TNACI
scientists collected from the Tellico will spend the winter at the
Aquarium's field station and will be spawned in the spring. Any
produced offspring will be sent to the Cumberland River Aquatic
Center, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) mussel
propagation and restoration facility near Nashville.
This work is being carried out during a crucial period in
freshwater mussel conservation. In September, the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service proposed a declaration of extinct status for 23
American animals, including nine mussel species, six of which are
native to Tennessee. USFWS has
listed another 51 mussel species in Tennessee as endangered or threatened under
the Endangered Species Act.
"Freshwater mussels are ecologically and economically
important," says Dr. Dan Hua, TWRA
senior scientist, and manager of the River Center. "As filter
feeders, they 'clean' the water by removing suspended particulates,
detritus, and harmful elements.
"In addition, freshwater mussels … are recognized as useful
indicators of water quality."
In addition to launching new projects and partnerships, TNACI's
headquarters is also the heart of long-term programs to raise,
release and restore iconic Southeastern species such as the
Southern Appalachian Brook Trout and Lake Sturgeon.
This summer, the Aquarium and its partners began stocking a new
Appalachian stream with Brook Trout
that were spawned and raised at the TNACI field station. On the
last day of summer, a team from TWRA hand-delivered ten new adult
"Brookies" to the Aquarium's field station. These fish, collected
from Brookshire Creek in the
Cherokee National Forest, will add their unique genetics to the
juveniles released into the new stream next year.
The restoration effort, which TNACI joined in 2012, dates back
to the 1980s. At the time, genetically distinct Southern
Appalachian Brook Trout had all but disappeared from their range
due to competition with introduced species and poor logging
practices that degraded native streams. Scientists also remain
concerned about the effect of changing temperature and
precipitation patterns on Brook
Trout's future prospects in the region.
The decision to shift restocking efforts to a new stream system
this year was reached because previous release sites now host
self-sustaining populations. This is an important milestone in the
effort to bring Brook Trout back to
the Southern Appalachians, says TNACI Reintroduction Biologist
Sarah Kate Bailey.
"That shows that our reintroduction program has been
successful," she says. "Adding new broodstock to our current adult
trout population ensures we will be adding genetic diversity to
these streams, which is a key component of a healthy
On Oct. 7, the Aquarium and other
Lake Sturgeon Working Group members celebrated the latest release
of juvenile Lake Sturgeon into Watts Bar Reservoir near
Kingston, Tenn. This year is the
22nd in the marathon effort to reintroduce these native river
giants to the Tennessee River and other Southeastern waterways.
With winter-bare branches still scraping the skies in central
Wisconsin this April, TNACI
scientists made the 800-mile drive to the Wolf River to help
collect and fertilize eggs from wild-spawning Lake Sturgeon. Weeks
later, juvenile Lake Sturgeon were sent to the Conservation
Institute. They spent the summer months growing to a releasable
size of about six inches.
The Wolf River's still-healthy population of Lake Sturgeon
stands in stark contrast to the Tennessee River. Lake Sturgeon had
disappeared by the 1970s due to a combination of overfishing, river
damming, and low water quality.
The 650 juvenile Lake Sturgeon released earlier this month
resulted from the Wolf River spawning and are welcome transplants
to the Southeast. Their introduction to the river marks the latest
chapter of a project started in the mid-1990s when improvements to
the health of the Tennessee River suggested a restoration was
In all, more than 250,000 Lake Sturgeon have been released into
the Tennessee River and other Southeastern waterways since 2000. Of
these, more than 30,000 (about one in nine of those released) were
raised by the Aquarium. Even after all this time, however, the work
by TNACI and its partners will remain important for the foreseeable
future, says TNACI Aquatic Conservation Biologist Dr. Bernie Kuhajda.
"These are long-lived animals — some can reach 150 years old —
so it's a long-term commitment to restore them," he says. "It takes
20 years, at least, before females are ready to spawn for the first
time, and we're getting near that time when the first sturgeon we
released will have reached that point. When that happens in the
Tennessee River, it'll be an amazing event."
Learn more about the history of the Conservation Institute's
flagship science facility.
Learn more about the Tennessee Aquarium's conservation
Thom Benson, Tennessee Aquarium,
SOURCE Tennessee Aquarium