When you think of a “biodiversity hotspot,” Chattanooga, Tennessee, might not be the first place that comes to mind.

Lake SturgeonBut Chattanooga, and the rest of the Southeast, deserves to be known as hotspots for aquatic species of all varieties: the region is home to nearly 50% of the native freshwater fish species in North America, half of the turtle species, and half of all the salamanders. Regional scientists call the waterways of the Southeast an “underwater rainforest” for its biodiversity, which is on par with the Amazon rainforest and coral reefs.

Many of these fish, turtles and other freshwater animals in the Southeast are gravely endangered due to habitat loss and pollution. Yet research and conservation efforts in the rivers and streams of the Southeast remain underfunded and underappreciated. Between 2012 and 2014, the entire Southeast region received only $6 million in federal funding for freshwater science. For comparison, a combined $636 million was spent to study just 12 fish species in other parts of the U.S.

“Freshwater science is largely overlooked,” says Dr. Anna George, the director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute in Chattanooga (TNACI). “[But] this is a critical natural resource for humans, and something we’ve got to pay attention to.”

Releasing Fish into the Wild

George and her colleagues at TNACI are working hard to attract more attention and research dollars to the fresh waters and aquatic creatures of the Southeast, and yesterday was a big day for them: the grand opening of TNACI’s new state-of-the-art research center in Chattanooga.

The event was the culmination of five years of planning, fundraising, and construction. The newly opened facility is the only independent freshwater science center in the Southeast.

George and the other TNACI scientists were previously crammed into spare space and warehouses at the Tennessee Aquarium. “We were basically in the Harry Potter closet under the stairs,” George says.

Their molecular genetics lab consisted of a few card tables and a fume hood in the corner of a warehouse that doubled as the nursery for raising sturgeon and trout.

The new 14,000 square feet research center (funded by a combination of private donations and the aquarium’s own funds), just a few miles downriver from the aquarium, is a significant upgrade. It has brand new state-of-the-art laboratories, artificial streams for experiments, a special teaching lab, and a sophisticated rainwater capture system.

“We have a state of the art genetics lab that looks out over the Tennessee River,” George says. “It’s perfectly equipped and every time I walk in there I just kind of start shaking with excitement.”

TNACIIn their new facilities, TNACI will continue and expand their research into native species like the Alligator Snapping Turtle and the Cumberland Darter, their efforts to raise and reintroduce endangered species such as the Lake Sturgeon, and their education outreach programs which include summer education opportunities for college students and adults.

George hopes the new research facility can create a new hotspot, a hub for scientists working to understand and save the rich biodiversity and critical habitat in Tennessee and the surrounding area. She says their mission to protect freshwater species and habitat is an urgent one, with consequences reaching far beyond Chattanooga. Declining rivers and streams affect everyone—we all drink water.

“We’re safeguarding our future,” George says.

Written by: Mallory Pickett
Published on: October 28, 2016

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