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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Zoo Review: Albuquerque BioPark Aquarium and Botanic Garden

Albuquerque, New Mexico, is home to one of the most spectacular environmental education centers in the country - the Albuquerque Biological Park.  Originally consisting of just the Rio Grande Zoo, the four-part complex now also consists of an aquarium, a botanical garden, and Tingley Beach (not an actual beach, this is New Mexico, after all, more like a fishing beach).

Compared to the rather expansive zoo and botanic gardens, the ABQ Bio Park Aquarium is rather tiny affair.  Opening in 1996, the aquarium focuses (mostly) on the aquatic life of the Rio Grande and the ocean it feeds into.  Upon entering, visitors are introduced to the river through a series of small aquarium tanks, displaying fish of the Rio Grande.  Nearby, a small movie theater plays a brief documentary on the life of the river.  Outside the theater, a shallow, open-top tank is patrolled by large stingrays, while a shrimp boat lies run-aground in the background.

Down the hall, a series of tanks display an assortment of fish and aquatic invertebrates.  Among them are clownfish, jellyfish, cuttlefish, nautilus, and seahorses.  In a small side-chamber, a touch tank features rays and bamboo sharks.  When the area is opened-up by aquarium staff, visitors have the opportunity to touch the fish.

The largest display at the aquarium is the quarter-million gallon shark tank.  A half-dozen shark species, including zebra sharks, sand tiger sharks, and black-tip reef sharks, cruise around, sharing the water with barracudas, moray eels, and loggerhead sea turtles; this facility was the first aquarium in the world to breed the black-tipped reef shark in an aquarium.  Dive demonstrations are conducted daily.  Past the tank is a restaurant and gift shop.

Outside, the aquarium opens up into the stunningly beautiful botanic gardens.  Among the many themed gardens are pools (often adorned with wild waterfowl), greenhouses, a children's fantasy garden with a maze and giant dragon statue, and a New Mexican homestead farm, complete with domestic animals.  For the animal enthusiast, however, the crown jewel of the gardens is the extraordinary BUGarium, one of the coolest collections of insects and their kin.  There is an enormous variety of tarantulas, a beehive, a neat nocturnal gallery, and a fascinating series of desert bugs from the surrounding landscapes, set into an artificial rock face.  And, of course, there are naked mole rats, like there are in every insect house on earth, it seems.

The single coolest display for me was the leaf-cutter ants.  Now, I've seen leaf-cutter ants in a half-dozen zoos across the US.  What made this display so unusual, however, was that there were zero barriers.  Just like in other zoos, the ants get their leaf chunks and march overhead.  Only here, there are no glass or plastic tubes confining them.  Watching them trot by, I was amazed at how... close they seem.  I could have probably jumped up and touched them.  Not the best idea, mind you, but still... it was really cool.

I first read about the concept of the Bio Park - the combination of zoo and aquarium, botanical garden and natural history museum - in the writings of Dr. Theodore Reed, the fourth director of the Smithsonian National Zoo.  I'd always thought that it sounded like the ideal way to do things, highlighting the interconnected nature of life on earth.  Animals move back and forth between land and water, they are sustained by the plants around them, and when they pass into extinction, they leave fossils behind them.  The Albuquerque Biological Park does an excellent job of reminding visitors that zoos and aquariums are more than just collections of living things - they are celebrations of the incredible diversity of life on earth.

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