Things Are Looking Up!

The Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit has reopened, and the new pyramid glass offers benefits for people, animals and plants.

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After an eight-month closure, the Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit reopened to guests right on schedule last month.

While the high-up, highly visible work was happening from March until October on the Aquarium's exterior with the addition of cranes, scaffolding and hard-hatted workers to one of the National Aquarium's iconic glass pyramids, changes were taking place inside out of view, too.

Work Zone

Because Upland Tropical Rain Forest was closed to guests and without animals for the first time since the Aquarium opened in 1981, this was a perfect time to make some necessary upgrades and repairs. Workers tore out and replaced wood decking, put up new wire mesh for the exhibit's birds and sloths, built a new elevated walkway for staff around the perimeter of the exhibit, and fixed aging ductwork, concrete and plumbing. The Aquarium's Animal Health team approved all construction materials used to ensure they were safe for every species in the exhibit.

Special Thanks

The Upland Tropical Rain Forest glass replacement project would not have been possible without the generous support of the State of Maryland, local governments, the corporate community and philanthropic partners.

"I'd like to personally thank Governor Larry Hogan and Senate President Bill Ferguson for the state's significant support," said National Aquarium President and CEO John Racanelli.

Senate President Ferguson, Assistant Commerce Secretary Heather Gramm and other members of the Maryland General Assembly joined National Aquarium leaders for a ribbon-cutting ceremony on November 15.

The state invested $7 million in the $8 million project, while Baltimore City, Baltimore County, the Baltimore City corporate community and the Abell Foundation all provided critical grant funding.

"While this interior work was more disruptive to the animal care team and horticulturists than what was happening outside, guests may not notice it," said Curator Ken Howell, who oversees the nine-person team responsible for all the animals and plants in the Upland Tropical Rain Forest. "This was primarily an infrastructure project and the exhibit itself hasn't changed much."

First Glass

"From a design perspective, the interesting challenge of this project was creating the correct environment for people, animals and plants," said Vice President of Planning and Design Jacqueline Bershad.

Key to that environment is, of course, the new glass installed in the pyramid. Most of the panes measure a substantial 3.5 feet by almost 6 feet, although there are a variety of sizes. While guests won't be able to tell that each pane is two to three layers thick with argon gas between each layer, they likely will notice the benefits of coatings on the interior and exterior surfaces of the glass.

Each of the 684 panes has an energy-efficient coating on the interior surface that helps with temperature control and keeps the exhibit a more comfortable temperature in summer—although still warm and tropical year-round.

The panes also have an acid etching on the outside that diffuses the light. This is ideal for the exhibit's plants, and keeps birds outside from trying to fly in. Migrating birds frequently collide with buildings when foliage is reflected on exterior surfaces, or when they can see vegetation inside. The etching on the pyramid glass performs the same function as the patterned film on the exterior of the Aquarium's main building and the ACRC, preventing bird strikes. While those films have to be replaced every 15 or so years, the etching is a permanent solution.

Ken adds that the acid etching has another advantage. "You can't clearly see out anymore, so it really helps draw your attention into the exhibit itself."

All the existing glass that was removed to make way for the new panes—a total of 46 tons—was repurposed and upcycled into material for fiberglass insulation and reflective road striping on highways.

Crews also installed LED lights on the exterior of the pyramid, which will shine blue for the National Aquarium. "We can also make the lights orange or purple to celebrate big wins by our hometown teams," said Jacqueline, "and they have no impact on the interior of the exhibit."

Staying Nimble

Throughout the construction process, Ken and his team had to stay nimble, as caring for the exhibit's animals, trees, plants and flowers became more labor intensive during the closure.

Aquarium horticulturists watered plants after the contractors left each day. Because the misting system was shut down for replacement, humidity levels in the exhibit were much lower than usual. The trees and plants had to be heavily pruned and trimmed back twice during the project to give workers easy access to exhibit infrastructure.

The team added some new cecropia trees to the exhibit a few weeks before it reopened. These trees—with their thin trunks and large, lobed leaves—are still small, but they are thriving in their sunny new spots.

The animal care team had to move animals out of the exhibit and into temporary new homes throughout the Aquarium and in the Animal Care and Rescue Center during construction. Ken also shared that some of the frogs and toads stayed in the habitat for the duration of the project. "Our free-ranging smooth-sided toads typically lay eggs in the rain forest stream during the spring months, and we did not want to interfere with this process," he said.

The first animals to be released back into Upland Tropical Rain Forest post-construction were the ibis, herons and sloths. For the other animals, the team allows them to be in a protected enclosure within the exhibit for a time to reacclimate before being released.

Aquarium Employee Releasing a Scarlet Ibis from Its Carrier Back Onto Exhibit in Upland Tropical Rain Forest

Now that the animals are back, plants are regrowing and the animal care staff and horticulturists are working in a space that's been upgraded to meet their needs, the Aquarium team is happy to welcome guests back to Upland Tropical Rain Forest once again!

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