A Day in the Life of Australia: Wild Extremes

There are many wonders to discover at the National Aquarium. The worlds you enter here wouldn't be nearly as special, though, if not for a passionate Animal Care staff.

  • Animals

Pratt Street is quiet in the early morning. Waves from a passing water taxi lap at the edges of piers and the trickle of cars along the road gradually swells to a steady flow as the city wakes up. The world behind the National Aquarium's glass pavilion has been bustling for hours, though.

Exterior Shot of Pier 3 From Waterfront Park With Birds in the Sky

City noises are muffled by the glass and concrete, replaced instead by the humming of pumps and sounds of gurgling water coursing through hundreds of habitats, home to thousands of animals. One of those habitats is Australia: Wild Extremes.

The Land and Water Down Under

The thundering waterfall that welcomes guests at the Aquarium's Main Entrance has its source three stories up, springing forth from the river gorge of Australia: Wild Extremes. The chilly water crashes downward, filling an eastern North American stream habitat home to brook trout—a reminder that water sustains life the world over and connects ecosystems that are continents apart. Gentle breezes waft through the entryway, carrying with them the sounds from a land quite literally on the other side of the globe.

Here, the screeches of lapwings and the laughter of a kookaburra ring out over the cascading water. Flashes of red and yellow streak between the trees as lorikeets flit between branches, and glints of silver shine from the scales of rainbow fish darting through pools.

The animals aren't the only ones moving about. Behind the scenes, the team caring for the Aquarium's animals and plants has been busy preparing for the day ahead. They are about to add new noises to the morning ambience. Tom Jewell, a senior horticulturist, strides through the exhibit first. He is responsible for nurturing the lush greenery, curling vines and trees growing all along the cliffsides. He also cultivates the next generation of flora the exhibit will need in the coming years.

Aquarium Horticulturist Watering Plants with a Hose atop a Cliff in the Australia Exhibit

Firing up a hose, he sets to work spraying the guest path, clearing it of fallen plant debris, feathers and the occasional white splatter left behind by a bird. With the path clean and drying, he climbs higher into the exhibit, mindful of his coworkers a few ledges down as he directs streams of water to gently rain onto a pandanus tree below.

"Everything the animals and plants need to thrive, from wind to rain to sun...we provide it all." -Brienne Momberger, aviculturist

During this morning rain shower, Tom and his colleagues focus on providing enough water to the shrubs growing in the built-in beds, rinsing leaves of debris and looking for signs pruning is needed. Some plants and trees are easier to reach along the outcropping; trimming plants along the steep inclines requires using climbing harnesses and safety lines. The team will not need those today, though.

From Ground to Air, and Everything in Between

Two levels below where Tom is standing, a cliffside door opens. The sounds of metallic clanging and people chatting drift from the nearby kitchen. Francis Smith, an aviculturist, steps out onto the ledge, arms laden with trays and bowls. He's prepared for what's known as the morning recall—the time he calls certain species to him for easier observation. Specifically, he's on the lookout for signs of injury or illness, or changes in behavior. He signals the flocks by banging two wood blocks together, the tap tap tap an audible advertisement that breakfast is ready. Soon, a group of energetic cockatiels descend to peck at the pellets and diced fruit laid out on the trays. The pied imperial pigeons are warier, preferring to wait in the trees until Francis has left the ledge before grabbing their meal. He counts them all among the branches, though, notes their condition, and retreats to the kitchen with yesterday's empty bowls. There is, after all, still much to do.

The kitchen is a hub of activity. The smells of bananas, strawberries, zucchini, sweet potatoes and (occasionally) shrimp fill the air with staff chopping, dicing and slicing away. Water and soap bubbles slosh in the sinks as the near-constant rotation of aquarists, herpetologists and aviculturists drop off dirty trays to soak. Countertops quickly disappear underneath cutting boards, supplement containers and food scales, reappearing only to be wiped clean before a new round of food prep starts. For staff coming from the hot and humid parts of the exhibit, brief blasts of cool air are a welcome relief as they pull meals out of the fridge for dozens of animals.

Feeding on Exhibit

Above the din of the kitchen, handheld radios crackle with incoming messages from other Animal Care staff and dive teams coordinating the day's tasks. A call from the Behavioral Husbandry team is Lariah Maynard's cue to head back out to the exhibit. She is an aquarist and herpetologist and has spent her morning collecting water quality samples from habitats and feeding spiny-tailed monitors. Now, she'll be target-training and feeding the barramundi while the Husbandry team observes the animals' progress.

It doesn't take long for the barramundi to catch on; they gather near the front of the exhibit, watching as Behavioral Husbandry and Australia: Wild Extremes staff discuss the plan for the upcoming session.

2 Aquarium Employees Holding Contrasting Buoys and Throwing Food in the Tank for Barramundi Target Training

Billy Murphy, a husbandry aide, and Lariah begin stationing the barramundi—ensuring the fish are in a specific area and focused on their targets. Other herpetologists and aquarists have made sure the turtles and catfish are distracted by submerged feeding stations set in the exhibit prior to the session.

A barramundi spots the contrasting colors of its target buoy and swims closer, looking for pieces of shrimp to fall into the water. Lariah watches for any interlopers—other animals that might grab the food before the barramundi gets to it—and times her toss accordingly.

This feeding technique works best for the barramundi because they can exhibit all their ambush behaviors: tracking the sinking food, stalking it briefly and then rapidly consuming it. Since barramundi come closer to staff during sessions, training also helps with monitoring their health and behavior.

Everything from an animal's anatomy to its behavior can affect how it finds food or detects prey. Whether feeding individually or allowing the animals to forage in groups, staff must consider all these variables. For example, herpetologists will place a lizard's meal where it can most easily see it, while aviculturists might teach a rowdy bird to eat from a specific bowl to prevent it from disturbing another flock eating from a communal dish.

Time to Train

Even small decisions in animal care can have ripple effects, not only into the next day, but weeks, months or even years down the line. Each choice staff make is well-informed and done intentionally to maximize the animals' welfare. One decision, though, has the biggest impact of all: training. Aquarists, herpetologists and aviculturists all dedicate time each week to building trust with the animals. Only then can they slowly work on teaching behaviors that are crucial to managing an animal's health over the course of its life. Successful training through focused and consistent sessions is what allows the staff (and animals) to meet long-term goals, like voluntary veterinary exams.

Training tools and targets are also selected with an animal's senses and behavior in mind. While the barramundi react well to the visual contrast of their buoys, the lungfish a few exhibits over are known to have poor eyesight. The targets they use are audible instead: a small maraca and a stick with bells attached to the end. Aquarists submerge these little noisemakers just beneath the water's surface and watch for individual lungfish to swim toward their targets. In comparison to the barramundi, these sessions are much more sedate, with the fish coming close enough for staff to touch and feed them by hand.

Hand-feeding the two animals around the corner from the lungfish, though, is out of the question. While these Johnston's freshwater crocodiles use visual targets, staff use long tongs to deliver food. One of the crocodiles has learned to station at his target, a blue and pink paddle. As the crocodile approaches, Herpetologist Matt Benedict offers him a piece of mackerel to reinforce that this is what he is supposed to do.

The animals set the pace of training; staff evaluate an animal's response during each session and make changes as needed. Training progresses even more slowly for the crocodiles, whose metabolisms require only weekly feeding sessions. While the male crocodile already stations well at his paddle, the exhibit's female is still learning to associate hers with food. Although she is used to seeing the paddle off to the side during feedings, she won't approach it yet. Herpetologists will gradually move it closer to her over many sessions so it can become her target.

Hidden Behind the Scenes

Soon it's early afternoon and foot traffic in the exhibit has picked up. Staff wrap up their front-of-scenes tasks before turning their attention to other projects related to animal care. Drew Roderuck, another herpetologist, is working on a custom animal transport container—not the first time he (or any of his teammates for that matter) has needed to design or build a customized tool. Caring for and handling Aquarium animals routinely demands innovative solutions.

Later, Drew climbs to a space located in the furthest reaches of the glass pavilion. The labyrinth of catwalks he navigates takes him past empty bird boxes (the lorikeets will roost come evening) and aviaries for birds that have been rotated off exhibit. Rounding a narrow corner, he passes Tom, who has finished tending his plant nursery in this warm and humid corner of the building.

Clambering up one last ladder, Drew steps onto the raised platform housing backup habitats he and other herpetologists constructed for Mertens' water monitors and juvenile aquatic turtles. Visible pumps and tubing circulate water while specialized lamps cast ultraviolet and infrared light onto portions of the enclosures. Bark structures and deep sand allow inhabitants to hide, bask or burrow as they wish. Drew notes each detail, adjusting a pump's flow rate or a lamp's angle as needed and flagging any information to pass along to colleagues and veterinary staff.

With that, his final animal check is done; he rejoins the team as their busy day winds to a close. A few stories below, guests continue their exploration of Australia: Wild Extremes, their exclamations echoing through the river canyon into the early hours of the evening. Eventually, the sounds of footsteps and calling birds fade while the waterfall rumbles on. It's a calm moment in this special world within the glass pavilion as it waits for this dedicated team's return and a new day.

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