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Vicious Fishes

A new exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Natural History really bites—compliments of live, mammal-eating fish—as it takes visitors on an educational trip down the great Amazon River.


When it comes to flexing their muscle, not to mention baring their teeth, sharks get all the headline-grabbing attention. But they’re not the only fish in the sea—or river, for that matter—that swim around with a chip on their fins. It just so happens that the Amazon is chock-full of nasty, some might even say vicious, fishes.

But fear not. Thanks to Amazon Voyage: Vicious Fishes and Other Riches, visitors to Carnegie Museum of Natural History will experience close encounters of the non-threatening kind with many of the creatures that lurk below the Amazon River’s surface.

Five years in the making, Amazon Voyage is the creation of the Miami Museum of Science & Planetarium, and that’s where the exhibition made its debut this past February. After a stint at Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian, Amazon Voyage will dock in Pittsburgh from September 2 through January 7, 2007.

Along with activities, original multimedia presentations, computer interactives, story telling, live fish in specially-designed tanks, artifacts, costumes, dance, music, and live demonstrations, the exhibit features a colorful mural by artist Ray Troll. According to Christine Mills, the museum’s program assistant, the painting highlights 125 of the furred, feathered, and finned species that call the Amazon home.

Troll discovered the Amazon’s diversity of riches during a 1997 voyage on Captain Moacir (aka Captain Mo) Fortes’ riverboat. As part of a crew of geologists, ichthyologists (folks who make a living studying fish), botanists, photographers, filmmakers, writers, and other artists, Troll became so immersed with the world he saw beneath him that he returned for an encore excursion three years later.

Now, thanks to the wonders of video, the same Captain Mo welcomes exhibit goers aboard the Victoria Amazonica. While guiding his passengers from Manaus, Brazil, up the Rio Negro to Barcelos, he offers these words of warning: “There are thousands of river creatures we enjoy, but seven that enjoy us.”

The perils Captain Mo speaks of are none other than piranhas, stingrays, piraiba (giant catfish), electric eels,

anacondas, caimans (cousins of the alligator) and candiru (parasitic catfish).

River riders are invited to dive inside the belly of a piraiba and see what he’s had for dinner—how does chicken feet, palm fruit, a monkey skull, a tennis shoe, and piranha jaw bones sound? They’re invited also to sing along with a music video that tells the tale of the candiru, a catfish that’s been known to mistake urine flow for water flow and, as a result, enter human urethras, causing great distress to both man and fish. They can even feel the zap of 600 volts of electricity, comparable to the current produced by a relatively small eel. Finally, they’ll learn for themselves that working in the Amazon is a pretty hands-on experience. Just like Brazilian scientist Paulo Petry did when he recently uncovered a new type of fish, aptly called the muck fish, they can sift through the muck and debris and make their own discoveries.

The exhibit also will answer that oft-asked question: How much is that Tetra in the window? This brightly colored tropical fish takes a surprisingly long and circuitous road to land in living-room aquariums across the United States.

And speaking of colored fish, pink dolphins are a big part of local lore. They’re said to live in the Encante, the enchanted underwater world of the Amazon, every now and then assuming human form and taking a walk on dry land.

Another long-standing Amazon tradition is the Barcelos Fish Festival. Video-taped dancers don aquatic-inspired costumes, and museum guests are invited to join in the fun.

But like the Amazon itself, this journey offers its share of twists and turns, eventually leading museum visitors to the real perils confronting the region: namely, river damming, pollution, cattle ranching, over fishing, bio-piracy, poaching, and logging. To date, anecdotal accounts suggest these practices will result in the disappearance of certain animals, fish, and plants from the landscape; the permanent flooding of some areas; and the drying up of small streams in other locations.

Although the long-term effects of these hazards have yet to be truly measured, NASA and the Brazilian government have taken one giant leap toward documenting their impact. In 2000, the Large Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in the Amazonia Research Station was established in northern Brazil. More than 150 scientists, overseeing 30 ecological projects, are expected to participate.

“We believe it’s very important to discuss the conservation of resources and to offer an educational component to our exhibits,” says Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Mills. “Amazon Voyage works with our mission.”

And it’s a real trip.

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