Newport Aquarium, Newport, KY
November’s featured article comes from Ric Urban at the Newport Aquarium. Ric is the Curator of Birds and Mammals at the aquarium. Newport recently renovated their Gator Alley and was kind enough to be apart of BTG! Thank you so much to Ric for the great article and to Margaret for sending us the images.
Q: How long did the design and installation process for the Gator Alley exhibit take?
A: Start to finish, from concept to opening, on this exhibit was approximately 13 months.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the exhibit to install?
A: Demolition of the old exhibit space was the most challenging. We had a demolition crew removing old concrete at night while we were closed. Problems arose when there were evening events booked; then the demolition team would postpone their start time until the close of the event or party. All the work would be completed and cleaned up before the opening of the aquarium to the public each day.
Q: What materials were used in the exhibit to secure the giant gators safely?
A: 30 inch wire netting was installed on our Orinoco enclosure along the top of the railing on each side of the walkway through the middle of the exhibit. This was more of a protection for the animals and a “catch-all” for many of the items that were found in the exhibit when we had young American alligators. Guests would lose stuffed animals, sunglasses, maps, pencils/pens and a wide variety of other items. So the netting has worked, it keeps almost everything from the pool except for coins. We still have to correct people who want to make a wish and drop coins into the pool even though it is detrimental to the animals
The Mighty Mike enclosure (formerly the Ohio Riverbank exhibit) is 45’ long and 6’ tall with a 3” acrylic wall, creating a great viewing opportunity for the guests. For safety purposes, we increased the height of the perimeter by 4 feet. By using a 4’ tall, ¼-inch wire mesh, we created a barrier to keep things from getting into Mighty Mike’s enclosure and created a barrier to discourage him from attempting to climb out.
Q: When designing the exhibit, what was a must-have feature?
A: The “WOW Factor.” Every exhibit we work on has to be better than the last. I want the guests to enter the new gallery and be blown away by the animal(s), by the habitat, and by the overall design of the exhibit space. The exhibit has to be fun and entertaining, it has to be educational and it has to generate a “call to action” emotion for the guest.
Q: What is most unique about the Gator Alley?
A: The diversity on display. We have nine species of crocodilians represented, out of 23 species in the world. We also have all four types (alligators, crocodiles, caimans and gharials).
Q: I know education is extremely important to you in the exhibits. What information was absolutely crucial to get across in this exhibit?
A: I think that diversity is one of the most important educational elements of the exhibits from a biologist’s point of view. Crocodilians are found around the world and many of them are threatened or endangered by vanishing habitats. In addition, increasingly these crocodilians are being classified as “nuisance” animals and destroyed. Many crocodiles are apex predators in the food chain and their loss undermines environmental balance.
Q: With the nine species of crocodilians you house in Gator Alley, what do they eat and how much food does the aquarium go through in a day, in a week?
A: Since crocodilians are predators, each species will eat a prey item. This may be fish, small mice or rats. In the case of Mighty Mike, he gets fed approximately 6 to 10 pounds at each feeding. We will offer him food every 6 to 10 days. Mighty Mike has a varied diet; he will eat chicken quarters, whole chicken, rats, pork shoulder, rabbits and turkey. An interesting factoid about the Newport Aquarium: The top consumers in the Aquarium are not the sharks, as many think. The biggest eaters are the penguins. Each penguin can eat 3 to 5 pounds of fish every day, and we have more than 50 penguins.
Q: Having one of the most diverse collections of crocodilians species in the country, what valuable information has the aquarium learned about these gators while having them?
A: The “take home” message should be that crocodilians are amazing and resilient creatures that have been around for over 200 million years. Many of the 23 species are threatened or endangered and need our help. Protecting our watersheds and wetland habitats are important in preserving crocodilians.
Q: Do all the gators have names? And if so, how were the names chosen?
A: All of the animals in the Aquarium and other zoos and aquariums, have collection identification numbers. This is part of our record-keeping system that we use to manage our collections. When new animals come into the collection, the keepers will come up with a “house name” to identify the animal. A “house name” is easy to relate to by our guest when the biologist is sharing information about the animals. Many times names are chosen with the country of origin in mind or the names are based on the animal’s individual personality.
Q: What is your personal favorite aspect of the exhibit?
A: I think my favorite aspect is the view the guests have of Mighty Mike. I enjoy watching the guests come around the corner and enter the Gator Alley exhibit area and see Mighty Mike. Some of the words of amazement aren’t fit for print. People are always impressed.