Everything but the Beach

The newest exhibit at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo aims to introduce residents of the arid capital to the denizens of the watery deep

A new aquatic exhibit opened recently at Tisch Family Zoological Gardens, commonly known as the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. The aquarium compound, "Wet Side Story," cost $1.5 million to build and is situated at the foot of a waterfall.

Emil Salman

It was one of the zoo's major donors, Robert Price of San Diego, who proposed the construction of a water-based exhibit to zoo director Shai Doron. Additional donors came on board after Doron led them through a presentation that included fantasy illustrations of children dreaming about gefilte fish against the backdrop of the Western Wall. In the end, several 16-cubic-meter tanks were installed and filled with a variety of strange and exotic species of fish, the likes of which most Israelis - and certainly most residents of the capital - have never seen.

"This exhibition is just a teaser, to show how we are going into the big project," says Doron, who is also responsible for the divers who clean the tanks a few times a week. The zoo's plans call for expanding the aquarium complex. Within several years, it is hoped, it will exceed 8,000 square meters in size and it will rival the world's leading aquatic exhibits.

"We aren't bringing in the standard tropical fish," explains Noam Werner, the zoo's zoologist. "Tropical fish get chosen because they are colorful, pretty and live in schools. But our fish come from nature. Some are gray, others live in solitude, not in schools. The exhibit is the first in the country to display fish from Israel, some of them quite rare. Another part of the exhibit contains endangered species of fish from around the world," Werner explains.

"Everyone knows about the need to preserve the Red Sea reefs," Doron says, "but few people give any consideration to the terrible destruction of the Mediterranean Sea and the loss of freshwater habitats. The streams are polluted, the lower Jordan River has become a sewage canal. The drop in the level of the Dead Sea is destroying the springs along its shores, and the pumping of water from Lake Kinneret causes damage to the springs in that area, as well," Doron notes.

"West Side Story" is conceived as the story of a drop of water that falls in the north of Israel and continues its journey, with visitors to the exhibit, down the Jordan River to Lake Kinneret and to the northern Dead Sea. The hope is that the new exhibit will heighten public awareness of the great damage that has been caused to the waterways of Israel, and the world.

Some of the Biblical Zoo's new residents:

Tilapia (1)

About 600 small purple, orange or gray specimens of this fish, which originated in Africa's Lake Tanganyika, swim in a dizzying vortex in one of the zoo's aquariums. There are more than 1,000 species of tilapia, which are known for their developed family life. Both parents guard the eggs, and then the babies, from predators, before guiding them to areas with a good food supply. The fingerlings "leave home" only after they are capable of finding food on their own.

Electric eel (2)

Originally from South America, the electric eel, which can reach 40 centimeters in length, is one of the most dangerous fish in the exhibit. Careless handling could send more than 500 volts through the body of a zoo employee. Electric eels use their special powers to stun their lunch - the tiny fish that live on the bottoms of lakes. The aquarium workers use special insulated gloves while feeding the fish or cleaning their tank.

Pollimyrus isidori and African knifefish

Both of these species communicate using low-voltage electricity, similar to the sonar used by bats. They use their "radar" to distinguish between male and female of their species. They can also serve to monitor the quality of water in reservoirs. "Testing water usually involves lengthy testing for 1,000 different pollutants," Werner explains. "But it was discovered that these fish change their electrical frequency when their conditions aren't good. All that's needed is to put them into a body of water and then place a frequency meter in the water. Only if it beeps is it necessary to carry out the comprehensive tests," Werner says.

Piranha (3)

It's not clear how the piranha earned its fearsome reputation, which in the past was reinforced by occasional reports about terrifying specimens that were smuggled into Israel and later found in secret hideaways. "Their teeth are like razor blades and they can devour a human being within minutes," one "expert" was quoted as saying after one such discovery in Ramat Gan. But despite their scary reputation and their impressive jaws, the piranhas at the Biblical Zoo seem rather cowardly and cautious. To prove there is no danger, Werner put his arm into the water, prompting the school of piranhas to flee to the other side of the tank. "There is no evidence of a piranha ever eating a human being," Werner says. "If a cow goes into the water or there's a fish in distress the piranhas go into a feeding frenzy, but in the usual course of things there's no reason to be afraid of them."

Alligator gar (4)

The head of this fish, originally from North America, is about one-third the length of its body, which can reach three meters. The alligator gar can live for up to 14 years, killing fish its own size and even alligators up to 1.5 meters long. Reports of frightened fishermen who set out to fish for tilapia and caught this strange fish in their nets occasionally appear in the local press. Over the years, many Israelis smuggled specimens of these impressive fish from abroad, disposing of them in fish ponds around the country when they outgrew their home aquariums. Scientists say these invaders could pose a risk to local species if they continue to multiply.

Lungfish

The lungfish, also called salamanderfish, is a popular food in places in Africa where refrigeration is unavailable thanks to their well-developed lungs, which enable them to breathe on land as well as in water. They can be kept at home for weeks before they are turned into dinner. The lungfish represent an intermediate evolutionary stage, between fish and land-dwelling vertebrates. "It is a vicious predator but eats very, very slowly," Werner explains. They live in swampy areas in Africa. During the dry season they burrow into a pocket of mud to wait for the rainy season. The locals extract these lumps of mud with fish inside and take them home, removing and killing the fish only when they are ready to cook it.

Aphanius dispar (5)

The Aphanius dispar is proof that there is life in the Dead Sea. This fish, which is at risk of extinction, does not actually live in the Dead Sea itself but rather in the adjacent springs, where the water is "only" three times more saline than ordinary seawater. (The water of the Dead Sea is 10 times saltier than regular sea water ). At the zoo, these fish make do with regular tap water, Werner explains, adding with a smile that it would have been an "incredible nuisance" to keep them in highly saline water.