The Audubon Nature Center in Bristol presents new exhibits

BRISTOL — Darwin is a little turtle with a big personality.

He lives at Audubon Society of Rhode Island Nature Center & Aquariumand when visitors pass his enclosure, he comes up to the Plexiglas wall to watch them curiously.

His enclosure includes a mirror, “because he likes to look at himself”, explains Anne Dimonti, director of the center, and if she took it out, “he would follow us”.

“Everybody loves Darwin,” she says with a smile.

This summer, however, it’s sharing the spotlight with new arrivals and exhibits, including a collection of lined seahorses, huge skull bones from two species of whales and, in the Curiosity Corner, a new digital microscope.

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These features join favorites like the 33ft model of a juvenile North Atlantic right whale, and outside the center, the Palmieri Pollinator Garden – which includes a large insect habitat dubbed “Buggingham Palace” – as well as trails that lead to a boardwalk with spectacular views of Narragansett Bay.

Seahorses put on a show at mealtime

The four new seahorses swim in an eye-level tank that makes them easy to observe. They’re fed four times a day – a meal of shrimp so tiny they’re dispensed via an eyedropper – which is a good time to watch how the seahorses use their fins to swim through the water to grab a bite to eat.

Seahorses mate for life, says marine biologist Dimonti. The males are recognizable by the pouch, visible from the front, where the females lay their eggs and leave the care of raising the young to the males.

Striped seahorses are native to the western Atlantic from Canada to Venezuela, but the nature center quartet was discovered off Tiverton last September by students from Roger Williams University.

“All of the aquarium exhibits are maintained by marine biology students at RWU,” says Dimonti. “It gives students hands-on experience and [means] advanced care. »

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Whale skulls share the Rhode Island connection. The smaller bones, from a minke whale, washed up in Newport and have been Audubon’s property for several years, Dimonti said. More recently, the incredibly larger humpback whale specimen was found on Block Island by researchers from the Atlantic Shark Institute.

It was up to the nature center staff to clean the humpback bones for display.

“There was no more flesh, but they smelled a little,” notes Dimonti. The problem was solved in part by soaking the bones in a dilute solution of a common household cleaner, Simple Green, and leaving them in the sun.

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As for Darwin, technically he is a diamondback turtle, named after the markings on his upper shell. Its neighbor in the new turtle tank exhibit is a female Eastern Painted Turtle named Tudley.

Both are found in Rhode Island, but their natural habitats identify them.

“Tudley is a true freshwater turtle and eats plant matter as well as small fish,” Dimonti explains. Darwin’s natural home is brackish water; it skips the “veggies” in favor of fish and shrimp.

Permits from the state or federal government, sometimes both, are required for protected animals, such as turtles, as well as for whale bones. Only approved organizations can apply for authorisations.

“You have to show that animals can’t be released back into the wild because they’re so adapted to humans [like Darwin, who previously had been kept illegally as a pet] or they get hurt,” Dimonti says. “You have to say how they will be treated and exposed.”

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As for the bones, “you can’t prove that you didn’t kill the animal to get the bones,” she said. “This also applies to the feathers and eggs of birds. It’s about protecting the species.

Human-made models, such as the life-size juvenile right whale, provide different pathways for information. Viewed from one side, the size of the model whale is overwhelming, but on the other is a cross section that opens into the body cavity where a huge heart, lungs, ribs and tongue are depicted. Then imagine the proportions if this had been a model of a 55 foot adult.

From giant to microscopic: what you can learn at Curiosity Corner

For contrast, look at tiny details through a new digital microscope in the inviting Curiosity Corner. A rustic desk has drawers full of specimens to put under the viewfinder, and the images are magnified on a large display screen. Visitors are also invited to put their own discoveries by walking the nature trails under the microscope.

These trails are not to be missed, especially the one that winds through a field, freshwater wetlands and salt marsh, to the edge of Narragansett Bay.

So is the Pollinator Garden, a showcase for native plants maintained in conjunction with the Master Gardeners at the University of Rhode Island. Native plants thrive because they are home, notes Dimonti. Additionally, the native flora supports the local fauna, including the insects and bees that inhabit “Buggingham Palace”, an intricate structure of natural materials with many nooks and crannies where the creatures live year-round.

The connection between all of the nature center’s exhibits — including freshwater reservoirs, salt tidal pools, and beautiful grounds — is Rhode Island.

“Everything here is what’s in our own Rhode Island backyards,” Dimonti says.

If you are going to …

What: Audubon Society of Rhode Island Nature Center & Aquarium

Where: 1401 Hope Street, Bristol

When: Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; trails and terrain open from sunrise to sunset

Admission: $6 adult, $5 senior, $4 child 4-12, free for children under 4 and for RI Audubon Society members.

Information:, (401) 949-5454, ext. 3118

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