Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 5, 2017

Aquarium's morphology lab works to keep species alive

In the morphology lab at the new Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, Dr. Bernard Kuhajda opens a trunk-like container and retrieves a preserved lake sturgeon measuring about a foot long.

He begins to explain how institute researchers count the scutes, or bony plates, to determine the age of the prehistoric-looking fish and how, in the adjacent genetics lab, the scientists will “unzip” its DNA, creating copies of the gene sequence for insights into how it’s related to other species and, ultimately, keep them all from going extinct.

“Now you can take a swab from your cheek, drop it in an envelope and mail it off, and figure out your ancestry,” says Kuhajda, an aquatic conservation biologist and TNACI’s science program manager. “Well, we do the same thing for aquatic animals.”

The nerdy little sister of the Tennessee Aquarium, TNACI has, until recently, mostly stayed in the shadows of the popular tourist attraction, a behind-the-scenes haven for scientists striving to protect Southeastern aquatic animals and their habitats.

The region’s “underwater rainforest” is home to about three-quarters of all native fish in the U.S., more than 90 percent of its mussels and crayfish, and half of its turtle species. Chattanooga happens to lie at the heart of this biodiversity hot spot.

Launched in 1996 as the Southeast Aquatic Research Institute, last fall the non-profit entity moved to a brand-new, 14,000-square-foot facility next to the Baylor School campus.

Just outside the propagation room, where institute researchers raise imperiled fish for release into Appalachian waterways, rainwater spills from the roof into a rocky pond before traveling in a trench around the building to a natural wetland. By the time it reaches the river, past a meadow blooming with native plants, it is recycled and clear.

TNACI officials have applied for Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Originally housed in the front of the Aquarium gift shop warehouse in north Chattanooga, two years later the facility moved to the Cohutta Fisheries Science Center in the rolling hills of north Georgia and became known as the Tennessee Aquarium Research Institute.

 Under a signed Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, TNARI broadened its efforts to save endangered and threatened native species, including freshwater mollusks, turtles and lake sturgeon, a fish that has declined due to habitat loss and illegal poaching for caviar.

Five years ago, the Cohutta site closed and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute – the new name was chosen to better reflect its enhanced mission – shifted operations back to Chattanooga. But the former warehouse on Amnicola Highway was less than ideal, with TNACI researchers often conducting DNA testing on preserved specimens on a card table in the corner.

From the time she was hired as director in 2006, Dr. Anna George had a vision for creating a space that would give TNACI its due and its staff the proper tools to do their jobs. She started looking for funding and property and, eventually, officials at Baylor School stepped forward with a “land arrangement” offer at the site of the old WDOD radio station.

“I can’t emphasize enough how inspiring it is to work in a building that was specifically designed for your mission,” George explains. “Everything is exactly what our science team hoped for.”

In addition to the genetics and morphology labs, the new-and-improved facility features a Geographic Information Systems room for designing and printing oversized graphics, photos and maps, an education lab where area students and teachers can get hands-on instruction (classes are streamed live to schools that can’t afford to send students to the facility), and the high-tech propagation room.

The latter is equipped with four man-made, blue-lined streams for raising lake sturgeon. Researchers can manipulate the depth of the water, the speed of the flow, and the temperature to study the impact of potential climate changes on the fish.

The dedicated genetics lab allows scientists to study a federally endangered species, like the laurel dace, without fear of losing the whole batch, by focusing on a close relative like the more common Tennessee dace. It also helps the population survive through genetic diversity.

“You don’t want a bunch of aunts and uncles and cousins swimming around in [the same stream],” Kuhajda says. “The greater the diversity, the better the chance of surviving disease, climate change and drought.”

In 2016, lack of rain made it easier to monitor fish reintroduced into the creeks and tributaries of the Cumberland Plateau because they were concentrated in smaller pools.

But the drought severely stressed the bronze-colored laurel dace and Barrens Topminnows, another imperiled species bred for years at the institute, causing them to get sick, die or fall prey to raccoons, opossums and great blue herons.

Scientists from TNACI and the USFWS mounted a rescue operation to recover as many as possible and keep them in captivity until conditions improved.

“Just think about it. If you and your family live in a house, and then all of a sudden [the surrounding land] shrank to where everyone in the neighborhood had to live in one room in your house, how stressful is that gonna be?” Kuhajda asks.

“Well, it’s the same with these fish. They’re used to all this room and all of a sudden that’s shrunk. The other problem is that when you have less water, the concentration of pollutants increases.”

Two decades after the launch of the Aquarium’s research arm, George is proud of being able to expand the facility’s physical presence and its focus on protecting the animals in “our backyard.”

“The rivers and streams of the southeastern United States are parts of our country that don’t receive enough attention, but they are really important to the quality of life we enjoy here,” she says. “Every time I get to spend a day outside hiking, I’m reminded of how important it is to have clean water and healthy forests. I’m so happy that our community also understands our connection to nature and supports our work to help make it better.”

George cites the synthesis of regional research efforts as one of the institute’s greatest scientific accomplishments. Conservationists from TNACI and Georgia’s River Basin Center, for example, recently worked together to rank area watersheds and create a unified prioritization plan for protecting freshwater animals across the Southeast, with a goal of devoting more attention to priority sites stretching from central Alabama through Middle Tennessee and Kentucky.

Other 2017 projects include:

starting more Adopt-a-Stream programs for regional high school students and citizen science groups,

strengthening partnerships with area land trusts (TNACI provides training and tools),

monitoring alligator snapping turtles in west Tennessee and smaller fishes in Alabama’s Mobile Basin,

introducing a more user-friendly website where scientists and conservation professionals can quickly share information about where aquatic species are found,

continuing TNACI’s longtime efforts to raise and reintroduce imperiled species such as lake sturgeon, Barrens Topminnows, and Southern Appalachian brook trout.

Watershed educator Erin Durant recently developed a new conservation program for high school and college students in Hamilton County and is working to identify and mentor teens from other Appalachian states who want to become freshwater scientists.

This summer, TNACI will host undergraduate students from across the country and lead a week-long professional development seminar for middle and high school teachers. “There are just so many opportunities to make a difference for river conservation,” George points out. “The only thing holding us back now is our creativity.”

The fact that TNACI is part of a non-profit facility like the Aquarium makes it easier to get things done, Kuhajda adds. “You’re not threatening,” he says. “You don’t work for a government agency, the state, the feds. You don’t work for a university and have to worry about your football team.

“What’s great is that everyone loves the Tennessee Aquarium. So, it’s easy to approach people about conservation issues. You’re not a scary figure coming onto their front porch, knocking to get permission to collect [freshwater specimens] on their property. That’s really nice.”