Protecting an Underwater Rainforest

November 2016



By Thom Benson

On 27 October, the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., increased and reaffirmed its commitment to freshwater ecology by opening a new facility for its research and conservation arm, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI).

TNACI’s new 14,000-square-foot headquarters serves as the only independent freshwater science center in the Southeast.

“As a non-profit organization, and particularly as an aquarium, we have a special ability to work across traditional borders on collaborative projects that bring people together to protect the diverse aquatic life of the southeastern United States,” said Dr. Anna George, TNACI director. “We can then share our scientific work with the Aquarium’s large and diverse audience to inspire others to join us in celebrating the animals living in the rivers and streams of our backyards.”

Located on the banks of the Tennessee River, just downstream from the Aquarium and downtown Chattanooga, this biological field station contains three main zones of operation. The reintroduction zone houses propagation systems for the native species that are central to TNACI’s endangered species work, such as lake sturgeon and Southern Appalachian brook trout. The conservation education zone contains a teaching lab for rising high school and college students and meeting space for collaborative projects with other conservation partners. And a portion of the building dedicated to aquatic research contains three fully-equipped labs, as well as artificial streams for studying community interactions in headwater streams.  In addition to offices for TNACI scientists, there is also space for visiting scientists to utilize while they are in the region tackling related freshwater initiatives.

During the summer months, TNACI has summer camp/educational opportunities geared toward high school science students © Tennessee Aquarium

Opening this science center is, as Dr. George stated, a watershed moment for the region, just like the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium almost 25 years ago.

Before the Tennessee Aquarium opened in 1992, the community recognized that the Tennessee River was vitally important to our region’s health. The Aquarium emerged as an iconic reminder of Chattanooga’s connection to fresh water and the outstanding diversity of southeastern aquatic animals.

The Aquarium is located in the epicenter of a hidden world of wildlife. More than 73 percent of native fish species found in North America live within a 500-mile circle that’s centered on Chattanooga. The rivers, lakes and streams of the Southeast are also home to half the freshwater turtles and nearly all of the salamanders, mussels and crayfish found on the continent. 

“These amazing freshwater communities are unparalleled for any location outside the tropics,” said Dr. George. “This is why the Southeast is so exciting to the scientific community.”

But the Southeast, with this “underwater rainforest,” is one of the fastest growing regions in the country.  Freshwater animals may be affected from both direct impacts to their habitats, as well as changes on land.  And in the Southeast, there are fewer protected lands, when compared to the western United States, to provide buffers for streams.  This means that freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened in the world. Extinction rates of freshwater animals are two to five times higher than terrestrial or marine animals.

 “Our role as conservation leaders comes at a pivotal time,” said Dr. George. “TNACI’s research and restoration efforts began in 1996 with projects to better understand and repopulate imperiled mussels and snails. Over time, we have expanded our programs, but now, more than ever before, there is a need to create a permanent home for our work to bring more experts and resources together to tackle the mounting challenges facing aquatic life in our region.”

A watershed education coordinator has also joined the staff to create programs that reach new audiences, such as land managers or ecotourism guides, with freshwater conservation messages and action items.

The TNACI team of expertise has been growing in anticipation of this new biological field station.

Scientists with extensive backgrounds in conservation genetics, field biology, cave biology (the Southeast is also home to more than 14,000 caves, about 1/3 of the known caves in the continental U.S.) and geographic information systems have been hired recently. A watershed education coordinator has also joined the staff to create programs that reach new audiences, such as land managers or ecotourism guides, with freshwater conservation messages and action items.

In addition to a summer assistantship program for college students, the George Benz Fellowship program, named in honor of TNACI’s first scientist/director, has added more opportunities for undergraduate research on freshwater animals and habitats.

There are many ways this new facility is already off to an exciting start with the expanded staff and resources. Among the highlights:

 A new research program is underway to better understand how climate change may impact salamanders and other aquatic communities. That work has been housed in a make-shift facility but is now under the roof of the new state-of-the-art building.

 This summer, TNACI aquatic biologist Dr. Josh Ennen launched a new three-year project to study alligator snapping turtles in West Tennessee. Partnering with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Southeast Missouri State University, Ennen is trying to determine the conservation status of North America’s largest freshwater turtle. (This species, along with 400 others in the Southeast, has been proposed to be listed as endangered.)

 The “Ridges to Rivers” initiative seeks to create lasting relationships with southeastern land trusts in order to bridge the gap between freshwater and terrestrial conservation.Regional land trusts will receive training from TNACI staff to monitor water quality, identify fish and other aquatic fauna commonly found in their focal watershed and learn best practices for protecting water quality in their land management decisions.

 The Geographic Information Systems lab, where GIS analyst Sarah Hazzard works, is one of the research facility’s hidden gems. This space will be used for TNACI’s research that has a geospatial component. For example, in past projects, historical data were displayed and modeled to help predict ideal habitat for threatened and endangered aquatic species. Work is underway to create a “living museum” of these location data that will be easily accessible by other researchers. The eventual goal is to have historical and new scientific records for all fishes in the Southeast on one digital platform.

 The new facility is also located on the south campus of a private, coeducational, boarding prep school. During the summer months, TNACI has access to some of the dorm space for the summer camp/educational opportunities geared toward high school science students.

 The first “Freshwater Youth Summit” will be convened at TNACI this month. High school student leaders will gather to express their thoughts about water quality and ideas about how to conserve and protect freshwater.

In addition, the team is creating new conservation plans for the region based on the biodiversity of the Southeast.  On the surface, that sounds like a simple proposition, but with more than 1,000 species of fishes, mussels and crayfishes nearby, this work may be among the most important endeavors currently underway. 

A Slackwater darter © Tennessee Aquarium

Working with the staff of the River Basin Center at the University of Georgia, Hazzard and other TNACI scientists took location data of freshwater species throughout the Southeast and analyzed where they were located in each watershed. More than 600,000 data points were collected in this major collaborative project that will be used by decision-makers to prioritize where specific biodiversity hotspots are located.  Incredibly, the Tennessee River watershed contains three of the five most important river basins for protecting freshwater biodiversity.

Finally, this state-of-the-art facility, designed to meet LEED Gold standards, is a model for stormwater management. Like many communities, Chattanooga is working to improve stormwater practices to help reduce runoff, the largest source of pollution in the country today. TNACI’s facility will capture all rainwater that falls on the roof and store it in a cistern. This water will be filtered and used as greywater to flush toilets. Excess rainwater will flow through a constructed wetland that filters and slows the water before it enters the Tennessee River.

A capital campaign raised $4.5 million to build the new facility and expand TNACI’s overall impact in the region. With continued support, the Aquarium hopes to increase this investment in conservation to $8 million over the next five years.

“The Aquarium is committed to the health of our watersheds,” said Keith Sanford, the Aquarium’s president and chief executive officer. “Our community recognizes the urgency of this work and has been very supportive. This science center will fill a critical need and help elevate Chattanooga’s reputation as a leader in environmental stewardship.”

Thom Benson is the senior communications manager at the Tennessee Aquarium.

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