May 16, 2013

River Legacy Living Science Center receiving a major makeover

The first phase, a $230,000 renovation of the terrariums and aquariums, is set to be finished next week.

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By the forces of nature and man, River Legacy Parks’ woods and wetlands, the habitat for creatures finned, feathered and furry, are slowly reshaped season by season.

But at the adjacent Living Science Center, little had changed since the well-used resource in the environmental education of Tarrant County schoolchildren opened in 1996. The original 19 terrariums and aquariums housing native reptiles, amphibians and other wildlife had become outdated, requiring frequent repairs and making it difficult for naturalists to properly care for the animals.

Now a $230,000 project is underway to dramatically renovate the exhibit. A team led by Gregory George, who designed exhibits for the Fort Worth Zoo’s Museum of Living Art, expects to have the construction work completed by May 25. Major funding included a $70,000 matching grant from the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation and a $75,000 grant from the Sid W. Richardson Foundation.

“It’s going to be an educational, interpretive experience. The strength of the center is that it offers a sample cross-section of native habitats, and then you walk out the doors and you’re in the habitat,” said George, who lives in New Jersey and described himself as a naturalist at heart and a former zookeeper.

Officials with the River Legacy Foundation, which operates the 12,000-square-foot center built of recycled materials, point to results from a 2011 poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy. It found that children who have positive experiences in nature are more likely to prefer spending time outdoors and express interest in studying the environment or pursuing an environmental career.

Evidence-based research also indicates that children who are connected to the natural world and are active outdoors lead healthier, happier lives and even perform better in school, the officials say.

Because of such findings, George said, exhibits like the one he is building at River Legacy are important to Earth’s future as humankind confronts a changing global climate.

A 19-foot aquatic environments wall will showcase two 800-plus-gallon aquariums that will house such native species as red-eared slider turtles, crayfish, sunfish, crappie, bass and spotted gar. Informative graphic displays will educate visitors about the features of these aquatic creatures and where to look for them in the park.

River Legacy officials say the exhibit will complement their water conservation curriculum and water ecology field investigations by educating visitors about protecting watersheds and, by extension, the water supply.

A 17-foot forest habitat will include six terrariums displaying native plants and authentic landscapes, replicas of dinosaur fossils found in the Arlington area and indigenous Native American artifacts that reflect the area’s past. Informative graphic displays will educate visitors about the habitat needs and adaptations of various native species such as barred tiger salamanders, green tree frogs, Texas spiny lizards, corn snakes, tarantulas and ornate box turtles.

Through visits by Arlington fourth-graders and students from other school districts, as well as nature camp and other activities, the center’s educational programs reached 14,000 youths last year. With the new exhibits, officials expect the number to grow.

“We’re really excited about this,” foundation Executive Director Jill Hill said. “This is going to be wonderful for the center and the community.”

A second, much more expensive, phase of renovation is planned for other parts of the center. Fundraising has not begun for that project, officials said.

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