Beyond the Fish Tank

Beyond the Fish Tank – Brief Article

Polly Shulman

More than 600 species fly, writhe, hop, lurk, and, yes, swim in Baltimore’s aquarium


WHEN MY BEST FRIEND, Maggie, separated from her husband and moved into the apartment above mine, her friends agreed that she needed a pet. She was skeptical. She’d spent too many years, she felt, taking care of others instead of herself. So she turned down offers of puppies, kittens, a blue budgie, and a fighting fish. Then one evening, I heard excited footsteps on my ceiling. The phone rang: “Come upstairs and meet Charlotte.” In a pickle jar handsomely furnished with twigs, a gleaming black beauty the size of my thumbnail was spinning a cottony web. On her abdomen, round as a raindrop, Charlotte wore a scarlet hourglass–the mark of the black widow. “Don’t worry” said Maggie. “The man who gave her to me says her bite won’t kill a healthy adult, it’ll only hurt. A lot.”

Charlotte was hatched in Queens, and to Queens she eventually returned, after Maggie awoke one morning to find an egg sac attached to a twig. Although Charlotte was living in celibacy, black widows, like many animals, can store sperm for a rainy day Unwilling to live in a building overrun with venomous spiderlings, we handed her over to a park ranger, jar and all.

Black widows thrive in damp places, like the wetland park where Charlotte was captured (illegally). But people who don’t live near swamps, dank basements, or courageous divorcees have a last chance to see one of these eight-legged hazards at the National Aquarium at Baltimore, before “Venom: Striking Beauties,” a traveling exhibit, heads for Tennessee on January 2. The black widow display; a tank filled artfully with broken bottles, includes a male, looking tiny; pale, and negligible beside his elegant female conspecific.

Among the more than 25 other species in the exhibit are a goliath bird-eating tarantula and an orb-weaving spider with graceful tortoiseshell limbs. The tarantula can flick its leg hairs at attackers, making human skin itch and causing smaller creatures more serious trouble. Terraria lining the walls contain plenty of many-limbed crawlies besides spiders: Glistening black emperor scorpions cluster together like bits of coal, brandishing globby brown stingers. Furry; wingless cow-killer wasps use bright red coloration to warn off potential diners.

Other tanks house venomous inhabitants in fresh or salt water–this is, after all, an aquarium. An anemone waits for prey; its white-tipped tentacles craning in unison like spectators at a ball game. In a sandy tank, camouflaged stingrays, orange toadfish, and spotted scorpion fish pretend to be rocks or part of the sandy seafloor, then ripple into softness as they swim. Various sea snakes and kraits, relatives of cobras, thrash through the water with their flattened, spoonlike tails.

Visitors on their way to “Venom” glide upward on moving walkways, past a 65-foot skeleton of a fin whale suspended in midair. They can look down upon kite-shaped rays that seem to glide along the floor but are actually contained in vast, flat tanks. Divers drop smelts, squid, or shelled clams in front of each animal, which slurps the treat whole. The tank falls the air with a murky fragrance.

The exhibit feels austere, but other areas of the aquarium engulf visitors in exotic environments. A rain forest lies beneath the pyramidal skylight roof. It’s a riot of green, a racket of birds–including colorful tanagers, three species of parrots, and a screaming piha, the loudest bird in the world. A spiral ramp plunges visitors into the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit, where contemplative look-downs glide by, along with porcupine fish and many others. Visitors may descend further into the dimly lit world of sharks. Along with the usual looming monsters, plump nurse sharks rest on the tank floor, as if someone had dropped them. They use whiskery barbels to sense prey hidden in the sand.

Admission includes a trip to the Marine Mammal Pavilion, where bottle-nosed dolphins and their trainers perform half-hour shows in a turquoise amphitheater. The dolphins demonstrate such spectacular natural behaviors as “porpoising”–leaping high in the air at top speed–or “fishwhacking,” stunning prey (or, here, a beach bald with a sharp blow. Graceful, inscrutable, cute as all get-out, they teach breathless lessons in ecology and natural history It’s rare to be in the presence of such charismatic teachers.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group