First, penguins waddled into the South Carolina Aquarium and created a stir. Then an albino alligator crept in.
Now, lemurs will steal the show.
The largest exotic exhibit ever to be staged at the waterfront tourist attraction leaps to the forefront Saturday as the “Madagascar Journey” opens to the public for a three-year run.
During a media preview Tuesday, four playful ring-tailed lemurs climbed along branches, munched on grapevine leaves and raisins and then huddled together up a tree in a “lemur ball” for a a midday snooze.
The father, Chandler, and his three sons, Cebes, Herodotus and Limerick, are on loan from the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, N.C.
They are the centerpiece of a 4,000-square-foot exhibit that includes a Nile crocodile, chameleons, frogs, geckos, parrots, stingrays, fish, snakes and other exotic animals connected to Madagascar, an island off the southeast coast of Africa about seven times the size of South Carolina.
Its isolation from the African mainland has created a biodiversity hot spot where more than 70 percent of its wildlife can be found nowhere else on Earth.
“It’s important to keep showing something new,” said Ken Seeger, S.C. Aquarium chairman and president of MWV community development and land management. “It captures a lot of people’s imagination.”
MWV, formerly known as MeadWestvaco, is the primary sponsor of the exhibit.
Aquarium officials believe the Madagascar display, which opens ahead of the release of the third and final installment in the “Madagascar” animated movie series this summer, will provide even more revenue than the wildly popular penguin exhibit from a couple of years ago. Those ticket sales helped the 12-year-old attraction pay off its debt early.
“We think it’s going to be bigger,” Seeger said. “Exhibits like this help draw the gate.”
The aquarium wanted a charismatic animal in an exhibit with interactive features to boost attendance.
Children, and adults, can crawl into a pop-up window inside the 450-square-foot lemur exhibit, and touchscreens beside some of the other animals’ displays provide instant information about them.
A baobab, the national tree of Madagascar, is also part of the lemur exhibit. It looks like it’s upside down because its massive trunk has stubby limbs at the top that are leafless most of the year and resemble tree roots.
The exhibit even includes an electric-operated safari Jeep that children and adults can crank and push buttons for wipers, lights and other functions. Each button allows a rearview- mirror-placed video screen to feature facts about Madagascar and its animal habitat.
“We think this will give all the local residents who haven’t been to see us in a couple of years a reason to come back to see us,” said Kevin Mills, S.C. Aquarium president and CEO. “It will appeal to all ages.”
The more than 100 species of lemurs in the world weigh from 1.1 ounce to 20 pounds. They have divergent digits on their hands and feet, and nails instead of claws in most species. They communicate with scents and sounds more than with visual signals, but they can be very vocal and use their tails to communicate as well, said Kendle Enter, an animal behaviorist at the aquarium.
To make way for the $240,000 exhibit, aquarium staff members dismantled the former Camp Carolina display, which had been in place for four years on the first floor. The bald eagle exhibit was moved to the second floor and elements of Toddler Cove were dispersed through other exhibits, including the new Madagascar feature, which includes a Mini-Gascar play area.
About $230,000 has already been raised from community donations to pay for the new exhibit, and staff members performed much of the labor, Mills said.
When the Madagascar exhibit leaves after three years, the Sea Turtle Hospital will move to the first floor so visitors can see what goes on behind the scenes with injured sea creatures, he said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.