TAMPA — The Florida Aquarium, an attraction known for its stingrays, sharks and other sea creatures, is getting further into the mammal business.
The aquarium has created a new exhibit area devoted to ring-tailed lemurs and other animals native to Madagascar, an African island country where 80 percent of the plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world.
Clearly, the lemurs are the stars of Journey to Madagascar, which opens Saturday. But also appealing — or unappealing as the case may be — are the hissing cockroaches. The display has a "pop up" feature where guests can crawl inside and get face to face with the bugs — thankfully, from behind glass. To add to the creep factor, an audio recording plays the roaches' hissing sound.
The exhibit also includes a leaf-tailed gecko whose tail looks like a dead leaf, coconut crabs with shells that look like coconuts and Malagasy cat-eyed snakes with big, beady eyes. The aquarium left the window in the floor that looks down into the shark tank — a favorite feature among many guests.
The exhibit was funded by a $100,000 donation from the Yob Family Foundation in Tampa, said aquarium spokeswoman Katherine Claytor. The foundation, which gives to several local charities, was started by Jon Yob, president of Creative Recycling.
Journey to Madagascar is designed to enhance the guest experience and give people a new reason to come back, Claytor said. It replaced the outdated Aquariumania Gallery located above the Wetlands Trail on the upper level and is included in the regular price of admission.
The exhibit has no direct connection to the popular Madagascar family movies but will likely benefit from the association, aquarium officials said. The project development team chose to highlight lemurs, an endangered primate with golden eyes, because they tell a bigger story about Madagascar and its problems with poverty and political instability. Lemur populations have recently declined because of illegal hunting for bushmeat and pet trade.
The aquarium's three lemurs — two females, Annie Oakley and her daughter, Emmie Lou, and one neutered male, Remington — were donated by a wildlife center on St. Catherines Island off the Georgia coast. They arrived at the aquarium in October and have acclimated well to the staff and environment, said Elena Lamar, the aquarium's associate curator. Introducing primates to the aquarium complements the mix of aquatic animals, which includes otters, also mammals.
"This is a great place to be a lemur," Lamar said. Roseate Spoonbills randomly fly by the lemurs' tree-filled enclosure.
Journey to Madagascar is the aquarium's largest new exhibit since Stingray Beach opened last year. It coincides with the addition of a new penguin display area directly underneath called Penguin Point. The aquarium has several African black-footed penguins but, until now, they were on view only once a day during the Penguin Promenades and for behind-the-scenes tours.
The penguin exhibit centers around Boulders Beach, a popular tourist spot near Cape Town, South Africa, known for its large colony of penguins. It's just around the bend from Madagascar.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.