Steve Ruark  /  AP
Elliot Rhodeside from Alexandria, Va., walks past a lightbox display at the National Aquarium in Baltimore's Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit. The exhibit features 1,800 animals representing 120 species that are native to Australia.
updated 5/12/2006 7:36:24 PM ET 2006-05-12T23:36:24

Winter has descended in full force upon Baltimore, except at the National Aquarium's new Australian exhibit where it's always spring in the Outback.

That means temperatures in the 80s, the sound of the coming monsoon season rumbling in the background, humidity to match, and parrots and lizards on the prowl all around.

While king parrots, Galah cockatoos, budgies and finches flit freely above visitors, and the odd lizard clings to a rocky outcropping, the crocodiles, snakes and fish are all safely behind glass.

Like the aquarium's rain forest exhibit, the Australian exhibit is an immersion exhibit in which visitors walk among the animals in a setting resembling the wild.

"We want people to forget they are in Baltimore, even for a moment," said Allan Sutherland, the aquarium's director of exhibits. "And help them forge that personal connection with the natural world."

Slideshow: Awesome Australia Australian river gorges range from dry and fire-scorched to monsoon soaked and completely filled with rushing water. The exhibit, which opened to the public Dec. 16, depicts a river gorge at the beginning of the monsoon season, known as 'the build,' in Australia, said Jack Cover, the aquarium's general curator.

"The winter is dry, but October and November is their spring, that's 'the build,' when it gets incredibly humid," Cover said.

Mist sprinkles down occasionally as visitors wind through reinforced concrete manicured to resemble rocks that have been scoured by millions of years of rushing water. Tanks on both sides are filled with olive pythons, freshwater crocodiles and the shingleback skink, a foot-long lizard with pine-cone scales and a stumpy tail in which it stores fat to survive the dry season.

The exhibit, however, does not contain two of Australia's most well-known animals, the kangaroo and koala, which are not native to the river gorge environment. It does feature a 35-foot waterfall, the second-largest in Maryland, and aboriginal paintings based on those found in the Outback.

The drawings, depicting fish, hands and other objects, "show a human connection to the natural world, which is really what the aquarium is all about," Sutherland said.

The exhibit was developed along with Discovery Communications and named "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes" after Discovery's Animal Planet cable channel dedicated exclusively to animals.

Animal Planet developed an orientation film for the exhibit to give visitors background on the Northern Territory region of Australian that inspired the exhibit, and has the opportunity to develop television programming about the aquarium's research and exhibits.

If You Go:

NATIONAL AQUARIUM: 501 E. Pratt St. in Baltimore's Inner Harbor;  or (410) 576-3800. Through February, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, and until 8 p.m. on Fridays. Call or visit the Web site for spring and summer hours. Adults, $21.95; children 3-11, $14.95.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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