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Night at the Aquarium

Our animal residents exhibit different behaviors once all the guests are gone.

Published January 21, 2016


Photo by Tracey Brown.

The whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling of Blue Wonders never comes alive, the golden lion tamarins don’t taunt our security guards and all of our animals are, well, already living. But while the National Aquarium may not experience as extreme a transformation as the fictional residents in “Night at the Museum,” a noticeable shift happens after the last guest exits the building. As John Seyjagat, curator of our Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit, describes it: “It’s the most beautiful place to be.”

Taking Over the Terrain

Doves in Australia: Wild Extremes reclaim the exhibit at night, cooing and carrying sticks to their nests. They’ll join numerous other bird species on the ground, overtaking the exhibit pathways that were occupied by humans just hours earlier. 

“The birds are hanging around on the little branches right over your head,” Seyjagat says. “And all you have to do is sit there and the doves are all over you.”

Our Aussie residents aren’t the only nightcrawlers. Security Supervisor Bernie Smith says “everything is crawling on the ground” in Upland Tropical Rain Forest once the sun goes down. 

Late-Night Limelight

Some of our more elusive residents ditch their hiding places in the evenings to take a more visible position within their exhibits. “Because of the scarcity of movement, people and noises, the animals come back out at this time of day,” Seyjagat says. 


Photo by Tracey Brown.

In Upland Tropical Rain Forest, several late-night staff members have been lucky enough to witness the sloths moving around. Nocturnal by nature, our Linne’s two-toed sloths are more active at night—but not for long. These shockingly sedentary mammals can sleep up to 20 hours a day, curled up in the fork of a tree. Just as the sloths can be tricky to spot, the moray eels have a habit of hiding during guest hours. However, Senior Life Support Engineer Janet Hartka saw a whole new side of them while collecting water samples from Atlantic Coral Reef at odd hours. They were surprisingly active, she says, swimming around the tank with no apparent need to conceal themselves in the exhibit’s rocks.  

They’re Alivvveeee!

The National Aquarium may never be able to say that its inanimate objects become living, breathing things, but it’s not totally inaccurate to claim that some of our animals come alive at night. Several nocturnal residents become noticeably more mobile. The death adders and pythons begin moving around their enclosures, extending their bodies and exposing their heads. Additionally, Amazon River Forest’s “emerald tree boa that’s curled up during the day is going to be seen moving around on the vines,” says General Curator Jack Cover. 

The giant waxy tree frog in the same exhibit becomes bolder because, in its native habitat, nighttime is safest. “In the wild, there are more visual predators, birds and monkeys out there during the day, so it freezes and blends into its background,” Cover says. But if you enter that exhibit at night, “that frog’s going to have the big, bulging eyes popping out, and it’s going to be crawling down the vine.” 

Giant tree frog

Similarly, the freshwater crocodiles in Australia: Wild Extremes hardly resemble what Seyjagat describes as “the crocodiles that look like stuffed toys during the day.”

“In the daytime, they lie there still,” Seyjagat says. “But at night, everyone’s more active. The males are bellowing. The females are jostling for territory. The males are courting their favorite girls … blowing bubbles with tails swashing.”

The male Northern yellow-faced turtles become possessive of their territory, challenging each other with theatrical displays of dominance—they flap their flippers obnoxiously in front of the faces of other males, intent on intimidation. Male Eastern water dragons also take this opportunity to claim habitat as their own by flashing their red bellies at other males.

Sound Off

Part of the twilight transformation lies simply in the sounds. “We sometimes find that animals will respond to storm events with big barometric pressure changes,” Cover says. “It will basically cause a spawning of the smooth-sided toads, so you’ll hear them calling.” Cover compares it to a symphony: “It gives me goose bumps. … It’s just so cool to think you’ve re-created this [habitat] and this breeding. ... I find it just as exciting, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.”

Deputies After Dark

Few people have had the opportunity to witness this midnight metamorphosis. Animal Care staff isn’t required at night, since the majority of our residents are diurnal—meaning they’re typically more active during the day and take the opportunity to sleep at night. Approximately three custodians, two security guards and one life-support engineer walk the halls when everyone else has vacated the building.

It’s a rare occasion when curators make late-night visits or overnight stays. “It’s usually for a power shutdown, an emergency, a storm or something like that, when we’d have to stay here for the night,” Seyjagat says. “In those cases, our first priority is animal welfare, animal care and safety.”


Image by Tracey Brown.

In the event of an emergency, curators do rounds, periodically checking on the animals—and the experience can be eye-opening. “We’ll see things like what the birds do when we’re gone, what the crocodiles do, what the turtles do,” Seyjagat says. “So that gives us a good idea of how to reshape the exhibit the next morning, how to deal with animals that we never knew fight at night. ... It gives us more information on how to better manage the exhibit the next day.”

It can also be surreal. Cover remembers staying at the Aquarium overnight one winter during a blizzard. “We had a raging snowstorm happening on the other side of the glass,” he says, describing the Upland Tropical Rain Forest that night. “And these tropical tree frogs were singing and breeding inside of the rain forest, and it’s a completely different climate. It was a weird, sort of juxtaposed scene—and it emphasizes the importance of how we have to maintain these climates” no matter what happens outside of them. 

The night shift is not without its unwelcome surprises. A turtle can trip a water sensor and cause a late-night page to be sent to a curator, informing him or her that the tank is about to overflow. Seyjagat notes that some animals can get stranded, jellies can get stuck and turtles roll over on their backs in the rain forest. “That’s why it’s so essential to have people walking around and taking care of those emergencies,” he says. 

It might not be a T. rex roaming the halls or Sacajawea reincarnated, but there’s no arguing that a night at the Aquarium is an experience to remember. We’re just glad those megalodon jaws remain immobile no matter what time it is.

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