My, what big teeth you have

LAS VEGAS -- Aquatic predators are drawing curious crowds to the Shark Reef exhibit at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.

A 90,560-square-foot aquarium houses 100 different species of shark, exotic fish, reptile and turtle in an undersea temple that can be experienced from many viewing levels. The largest of the 14 exhibits is the 1.3 million-gallon shark tank.

Here an acrylic tunnel allows visitors to get a 360-degree view of more than 2,000 sea creatures, including 11 species of shark.

Naturalists are stationed throughout the area to answer questions about sharks, which are not nearly as deadly as humans believe.

According to the International Shark Attack File, sharks attack 50 to 70 people a year worldwide, involving about eight fatalities.

Of 350 species, only 30 are dangerous to humans, and 30 more are considered potentially dangerous.

Shark Reef visitors are invited to get their hands wet in a touch tank teeming with sharks, rays and invertebrates.

Sea stars, sea urchins, juvenile zebra sharks, southern stingrays and horseshoe crabs skim along the surface of the tidal pool.

In the Treasure Bay area, sand tiger, sandbar, lemon and nurse sharks swim past a sunken ship, while schools of snappers and jacks dart among the ruin.

Another tank is home to three juveniles among only a dozen golden crocodiles known to exist.

The young crocodiles, which are a hybrid between the saltwater and Siamese, are easy targets for predators in the wild.

Creatures that are best left undisturbed are the sea jellies that float gracefully in a cylindrical column tank.

Their fragile transparency belies a stinger that protects them from predators.

In planning this ocean in the desert, the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center imported Red Sea salt from Israel, which creates the elements found in natural seawater when combined with local dechlorinated water.

The Lizard Lounge offers an opportunity to relax out of sight of the same-named reptiles on exhibit, some of which grow as long as nine feet and some of which are carnivorous, the guides said.

More than 250,000 people have visited Shark Reef during its first three months of operation.

Shark Reef is open daily from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Adult tickets cost $12.95. Tickets for children ages 5 to 12 are $9.95, and children under the age of 5 are admitted free.

For advance tickets, call (702) 632-7580.

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