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published on 01/23/2009

Social Networking - A Romantic Art in the Animal World

Communications Manager Tennessee Aquarium & IMAX Theater

Tennessee Aquarium Highlights Love and Courtship in February

Social networking is the universal catch phrase used to describe the new ways people are using computers to communicate. For example, short bursts of information are delivered to others through the electronic service “Twitter”, while more lengthy postings may be shared with family or friends on websites like “Facebook.” While you’re not going to see a penguin or macaw pecking prose on a PDA, social networking is well-established in the animal world. In fact, for many species social communication is a romantic art. Here are some examples of what you might discover throughout February as the Tennessee Aquarium celebrates the month of love in downtown Chattanooga.

Frog Blogging Record?
Frogs and toads may not be able to frequently post thoughts and comments to a website, but that’s not stopping them from broadcasting a barrage of instant messages. On any given spring or summer evening, the chorus of frogs and toads calling to attract a mate is overwhelming. But they are not the only amorous amphibians that vocalize to woo the opposite sex. Salamanders and newts emit a variety of soft squeaks, low whistles, barks and clicks.

In addition, many salamanders communicate with the opposite sex chemically and visually. “Many species have well developed hedonic glands that emit an attractive chemical,” says Collins. “A complex courtship dance involving a lot of head rubbing and dancing in circles takes places between the salamanders as the male leads the female to the proper location to reproduce.” Several species of salamanders can be seen at the Aquarium like the hellbender, a native amphibian that was once common in the Tennessee River, but has been listed as Near Threatened by the World Conservation Union.

CaféMom or CaféDad?
CaféMom may be one of the most popular social websites for mothers, but if seahorses had laps, and therefore laptop computers, CaféDad would be the most visited site on the reef. Because when a seahorse chooses a mate, the pair tends to stay together constantly. They oftentimes will hold onto each other’s tail and swim together, rest together and even hunt for food together. The mating dance begins with the male bowing his head to squish his pouch empty of water. Next he’ll swim around the female flaunting himself. This display involves filling his pouch with water to show her how full it can be. If she’s impressed enough, the pair will swim upward belly to belly as she releases her eggs into his pouch. The male holds the eggs in his belly for 30 to 45 days until the baby seahorses are released. And baby seahorses seem to appear all the time at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Penguins Don’t Twitter, They Chatter
Online service Twitter allows people to generate frequent, short messages to family and friends. The Aquarium’s gentoo and macaroni penguins use short bursts of raucous calls and body language to communicate. They’re birds, but this isn’t exactly twittering. Penguins will occasionally pair up and begin loudly calling to each other while bobbing and swaying their heads. Normally this is only two penguins at a time, but that is loud enough according to penguin keeper Amy Graves. “Imagine what it will be like later this spring when all of these birds start calling. It will be deafening inside the exhibit.” Graves explains that this is not true courtship behavior, but a romantic practice session in the penguin world. “Penguins need small, smooth stones to build their nests. We call these magic rocks because to the penguins, the rocks are like dimming the lights and playing soft music. The nesting materials are the cue to become romantic.” Nearly 600 pounds of nesting rocks will be put inside the exhibit sometime in April which will increase the volume of the penguins’ chatter.

Devoted Dart Frogs Defend “My Space”
Some species of dart frogs choose just the right location to attract a mate. If another male invades that space, a frog wrestling match will ensue. The winner claims the territory and presumably a fine mate. In spite of their aggressive nature, dart frogs are very caring parents. Dave Collins, the Aquarium’s curator of forests says both males and females have an amazing parental instinct. “If the area where the eggs are laid begins to dry up, one or both parents begin to transport water to the clutch to keep them moist,” says Collins. “If things get too dry, the parents will carry the tadpoles on their backs to a place with more water.” Check out the colorful dart frogs in their space in River Journey’s Discovery Hall.

Turtles Turn To Flicker
It’s always Valentine’s Day in the Mississippi Delta and Tennessee River galleries. Here male freshwater turtles do their best to impress the ladies with their courtship displays.
Male red ear sliders and southern painted turtles can be seen swimming in front of, or above their female counterparts. With long claws extended, they carefully, yet rapidly flicker their fingernails in front the face of their prospective mates.

You Two on YouTube
Weedy seadragons are among the most unusual animals on display at the Tennessee Aquarium, and they have one of the best love stories around. One pair of weedy seadragons currently on exhibit in the Tasmanian Kelp Bed display has been courting since September of 2006. Look closely and you may see their dancing display almost every day. These lovers have successfully bred twice in the past, and one of their babies is now 5 years old. The Tennessee Aquarium is one of only a few aquariums that have been successful breeding weedy seadragons. Check out the Aquarium’s YouTube page to learn more about leafy and weedy seadragon courtship as well as other cool behind the scenes animal videos. Log on at

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