Tennessee Aquarium Opens the Southeast's Only Freshwater Science Center

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At a time when they need it most, imperiled freshwater aquatic animals are getting a new wave of support. The Tennessee Aquarium's new science center fills a void in conservation research in the Southeast.

Aerial view of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute

Aerial view of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute

“We live within one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots — home to an underwater rainforest,” said TNACI Director Dr. Anna George. “There are as many fish species in the Cumberland, Mobile, and Tennessee River basins as ... the Amazon River."

With the October 27 opening of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute’s (TNACI) new flagship riverfront facility, the Southeast’s rich — but imperiled — aquatic biodiversity is going to receive a much-needed shot in the arm.

TNACI’s facility sits at the heart of a region whose aquatic diversity is unrivaled in the temperate world. More than 1,400 aquatic species reside in waterways within a 500-mile radius of Chattanooga, including about three-quarters (73.1 percent) of all native fish species in the United States. More than 90 percent of all American mussels and crayfish species live within that same area, as do 80 percent of North America’s salamander species and half of its turtle species.

“Many people don’t realize that we live within one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots — home to an underwater rainforest,” said TNACI Director Dr. Anna George. “There are as many fish species in the Cumberland, Mobile, and Tennessee River basins as there are in a similarly-sized part of the Amazon River.”

The increased research and outreach capabilities offered by the TNACI facility arrive at a critical time for these aquatic treasures, which increasingly are imperiled by human encroachment and a lack of federal funding.

The Southeast has fewer protected lands than western states, and the absence of buffer zones and heavy development around local waterways place already-fragile and limited freshwater ecosystems at even greater risk. Habitat destruction in the region is exacerbating the withering experienced by all freshwater species, whose rate of extinction is two to five times higher than that of terrestrial and marine animals.

Federal spending on research to protect the Southeast’s freshwater species is pauper-poor and drastically out of proportion to the region’s incredible ecological diversity. Between 2012 and 2014, total expenditure on programs to study freshwater fish species in the Southeast averaged $6.2 million. During the same period, just 12 species outside the region received a combined $636 million in funding, more than 100 times the average budget for the entire Southeast.

With so much attention being focused on less biodiverse areas, TNACI’s new home offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to raise the profile of southeastern rivers and streams, as well as lead the charge on conservation science in the region. And as an arm of a nonprofit aquarium, TNACI is ideally positioned to pursue this mission across the region, Dr. George said.

“We have a special ability to work across traditional borders on collaborative projects that bring people together to protect the exceptional aquatic life of the southeastern United States,” she said. “We can then share our scientific work with the Aquarium’s large and diverse audience to inspire others to join us in celebrating and protecting the animals living in the rivers and streams of our backyards.”

Located near a natural wetland along the banks of the Tennessee River just downstream from downtown Chattanooga, the 14,000-square-foot facility will serve as the headquarters for a newly bolstered staff of conservation scientists as well as visiting experts. Featuring an environmentally conscious design that informed every aspect of its construction, the building provides access to cutting-edge equipment, including genetics and morphology laboratories, and offers much-needed space for staff to centralize and streamline ongoing projects, initiate critical new research with partners across the country, and host educational programs.

“We’re surrounded by amazing freshwater communities that are unparalleled for diversity and beauty,” said TNACI director Dr. Anna George. “It’s why our region is so exciting to the scientific community and why we are committed to protecting our aquatic riches so they can continue to be enjoyed by all. This new science center will give us more capacity to expand our research, restoration and education programs.”

Since TNACI’s foundation in 1996, its staff has pursued projects to study and, in some cases, restore some of the region’s most imperiled species, including long-term captive propagation of Lake Sturgeon and Southern Appalachian Brook Trout. Previously, those programs were managed at separate off-site locations, some more than 45 minutes away from Chattanooga. They now will be housed on the first floor of the new building in a space specifically designed for the animals’ needs. Even with the newly relocated programs, additional square footage has been reserved at the site to expand TNACI’s propagation efforts in the future.

The building’s dedicated genetics laboratory will ease the research process and increase the capabilities of TNACI staff. Formerly, institute researchers conducting DNA testing worked at a makeshift station in a corner of the Aquarium’s Animal Care Facility.

By bringing together formerly far-flung projects and offering access to lab equipment that can more effectively handle research needs on-site, the new facility eliminates many of the obstacles that previously hampered TNACI’s conservation efforts, said Dr. Bernie Kuhajda, director of the facility’s science programs. The site also will serve as a nexus for conservation science beyond Chattanooga, with office and research space on the second floor specifically designated for use by visiting scientists.

“Just getting together to work collaboratively with our team was always logistically challenging since we were in separate buildings,” he said. “Now, we'll have all our field gear, all our labs and offices in one place. A huge part of the benefit is this new shared space, which not only helps us work together more closely, but also gives us space to bring together fellow scientists from across the country to discuss conservation solutions.”

Although it is just now officially opening its doors, the new facility already is the hub of numerous active conservation programs, including:

  •     An ongoing population analysis and newly funded genetic study led by Drs. Kuhajda & George of the Laurel Dace, an endangered fish whose habitat is restricted to a small system of waterways on Walden Ridge.
  •     A new study funded by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant to establish the population genetics of the Cumberland Darter, an endangered fish found in only a handful of tributaries of the Upper Cumberland River in Tennessee and Kentucky.
  •     A three-year project initiated earlier this summer by TNACI aquatic biologist Dr. Josh Ennen in partnership with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Southeast Missouri State University to study and determine the conservation status of Alligator Snapping Turtles in Tennessee.
  •     A new on-site program utilizing artificial streams with controllable water temperatures to gauge the potential impact of climate change on salamanders and other small stream species.
  •     An ongoing survey initiated in September and lead by Dr. Kuhajda of six threatened and endangered fish species living in the Mobile Basin, including the Blue Shiner, the Cahaba Shiner, the Goldline Darter, the Rush Darter, the Vermillion Darter and the Watercress Darter.

In addition to its scientific initiatives in the field, TNACI’s new facility also will serve to bolster the institute’s educational outreach. A large teaching lab on the first floor will target regional high school and college students who are pursuing a degree in a scientific field and connect them with freshwater scientists and educators.

For more information about TNACI, its new facility and its conservational initiatives, visit http://www.tnaqua.org/protect-freshwater. Follow the institute on social media via http://www.facebook.com/TennesseeAquariumConservationInstitute or http://www.twitter.com/tnacigogreen.


The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder, appreciation and protection of water and all life that it sustains. Admission is $29.95 per adult and $18.95 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 $11.95 per adult and $9.95 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $37.95 for adults and $26.95 for children. Excursions aboard the new River Gorge Explorer depart daily into “Tennessee’s Grand Canyon.” Cruise tickets are $32.00 per adult and $24.50 per child (3-12). Advance tickets may be purchased online at http://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.

High resolution images of the new science center and TNACI experts in the field are available for download: https://we.tl/1vsADkX1O2
Drone footage of the new science center: https://youtu.be/eqHAZqsB1yg (***Be sure to check full HD setting***)
Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute – Freshwater Biodiversity video for embed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcHca5yUZME

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Thom Benson
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