Alabama is world-famous for its aquatic biodiversity. We have more freshwater species of fishes, snails, mussels, crayfish, and turtles in Alabama than in any other state. We also rank near the top for “herps” (that’s biological slang for reptiles and amphibians) and carnivorous plants, and most members of these two groups depend on the state’s aquatic ecosystems. Alabama’s abundant water resources – from its ample rainfall to its numerous large rivers – support its famous biodiversity. These resources are among the state’s most important economic and cultural assets. Without Alabama’s waters, agriculture, water-related recreation, hydropower, and inland barge traffic would be nonexistent, and supplies of drinking water would be scarce.
If you want a great overview of Alabama’s water resources, the McWane Science Center’s Lower Level is the place to go. Start at the beginning, with the FOX 6 Weather Lab, to learn about the southeastern climate and our day-to-day weather patterns. A variety of storms – from winter cold fronts and summer thunderstorms to tropical storms and hurricanes – keep Alabama a lot wetter than most U.S. states. After you check out the Fox 6 Weather Lab, visit the World of Water exhibit, where dramatic digital imagery from around the world illustrates the water cycle (the continuous movement of water through our atmosphere, oceans, and landscapes).
From the World of Water, step into the River Journey exhibit to explore Alabama’s rivers. There, a topographic map of the state reveals how the convoluted terrain of the Southern Appalachian Mountains has divided Alabama into numerous distinct watersheds. Another map shows the state’s major streams and rivers. Below it, you’ll find an explanation of Alabama’s river names – all of which have Native American origins.
Next, visit a river’s headwaters, where you’ll see oversized models of stream critters and can read their life histories. Children love to climb into the mouth of the giant, 12-foot-long bass in this area. But the biggest attraction, without a doubt, is the Cahaba River Tank, a large aquarium filled with fishes and turtles native to Alabama’s rivers. Water flows continuously over a waterfall, and kids can study bass, gar, sunfish, and catfish at eye level. Turtles swim with the fishes and perch on logs and rocks to bask in simulated sunlight. Look carefully amongst the trees and you might spot a duck or a lost fishing bobber.
Just a few steps away are aquariums filled with fishes and turtles typical of the state’s Coastal Plain and Tennessee Valley rivers, along with signage explaining the relationships between these rivers and adjacent swamps. Additional displays explain that many of Alabama’s large rivers are no longer free-flowing. Now they are “captured waters,” held back by dams that provide opportunities for inland water recreation, hydropower production, flood control, and industrial river transport. The reservoirs made by damming created habitats for the widespread species that thrive in deep, still waters. However, these reservoirs eliminated the shallow, free-flowing habitats where many of Alabama’s most unique species lived. As a result, dozens of those species are now extinct or endangered.
Complete your trip through Alabama’s waters at the Ocean Journey exhibit. Several aquariums in this room house species found along the Alabama coast, including Moon Jellyfish (illuminated with fluorescent lights!), Atlantic Spadefish, Lookdowns, Cottonwick Grunts, and a magnificent 6-foot-long Green Moray Eel. These and thousands of other fish and invertebrate species count on unpolluted freshwater that come from the rivers. Alabama’s marine sportfishing and seafood industry also depend on water being delivered to the coast. As you finish your tour, be sure to read the displays that share how we can each do our part to help keep Alabama’s water resources clean and abundant.
-R. Scot Duncan