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

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 expanded 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 morphology and genetics laboratories, and offers much-needed space for staff to centralize and streamline ongoing projects, initiate critical new research, and host educational programs.

“We’re surrounded by amazing animal communities in our rivers and streams that are unparalleled for diversity and beauty,” says TNA- CI 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 treasures.”

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.

A student observes stream life at TNACI.

A student observes stream life at TNACI.

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 offering access to lab equipment the Center can more effectively handle research needs on-site. Although it is just now officially opening its doors, the new facility is already the hub of active conservation programs, including:
• An ongoing population analysis and newly funded genetic study 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 the Upper Cumberland River.
• A three-year project in partnership with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Southeast Missouri State University to study the conservation status of Alligator Snapping Turtles in Tennessee.
• A new on-site program using an artificial stream with controllable water temperatures to gauge the potential impact of climate change on salamanders and other small stream species.
• An ongoing survey of six threatened and endangered fish species living in the Mobile Basin.

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. It also has research space on the second floor specifically designated for use by visiting scientists.

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.

The Southeast has fewer protected lands than western states, and the absence of buffer zones and heavy development around local waterways place fragile 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 poor and drastically out of proportion to the region’s ecological diversity, which conservationists liken to an “underwater rainforest.” 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 the local aquatic ecosystem and lead the charge on conservation science in the region.

For more information about TNACI, its new facility, and its conservational initiatives, visit www.tnaqua.org/protect-freshwater.

Story by Thom Benson
Photography courtesy of Tennessee Aquarium

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