Thursday, August 13, 2009

Extreme Mammals

Extreme Mammals: The Biggest, Smallest, and Most Amazing Mammals of All Time

See the giant Indricotherium, a plant-eating mammal from Mongolia that weighed as much as four adult African elephants! Gaze at the tiny bumblebee bat, which can hover in place like a hummingbird! Marvel at the wide-eyed sugar gliders, sailing nimbly through the branches! All can be seen in Extreme Mammals, the latest exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History that showcases the largest, smallest, toothiest, brainiest, prickliest, slowest, fastest and lustiest mammals on the planet. Although its title suggests a circus, the show lacks the pizzazz of a real one. Except for the sugar gliders and the human visitors, none of the mammals in the exhibition is moving or breathing: all are models, skeletons or stuffed. The museum has more than a million stuffed animals in its collection, and never misses an opportunity to haul them out for display, preferably in one of its beloved dioramas.

Extinct: South American ungulate Macrauchenia.

Extreme Mammals is a superb example. Among the many immortalized creatures shown are a duck-billed platypus, a fluffy koala, a longtailed howler monkey, a spectacled bear and a striped Tasmanian wolf or thylacine, which went extinct in 1936 when the last of its kind died in an Australian zoo. One diorama depicts Ellesmere Island — now an expanse of frozen tundra some 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole — when it was a warm paradise 50 million years ago, inhabited by the likes of Coryphodon, an animal similar to a hippo but with massive tusks and one of the smallest brains for its size. Surrounded by plywood trees, the foamcarved Coryphodon chews placidly on swamp plants beside a polyurethane pond.

Extreme Mammals offers some amazing sights. Visitors Darenter the exhibition by walking under the belly of a model of a 34-million-year-old adult Indricotherium— at 18 tonnes, it is the largest land mammal ever found. They are then treated to a stupendous array of mammalian headgear, such as a cast of a 2.5-metre-long, bendable tusk of the narwhal; some 2-metre-wide moose antlers; the giant fossil jaw of the 14-million-year-old extinct Platybelodon grangeri— an elephant relative that may have used its platterlike teeth to scoop up swamp grasses; and the curved upper canines of the Indonesian male babirusa pig that stick upwards through its skull.

Extant: the duck-billed platypus.

The exhibition includes plenty of basic biology: all mammals have three bones in the middle ear, some sort of hair, large brains for their body size and females that produce milk for their young. The show also offers a plethora of weird facts: the Shaw’s jird, a small African desert rodent, can mate 224 times in 2 hours; the aardvark, or ‘earth pig’, can dig for and eat shell of a glyptodont — an extinct South American armadillo relative that grew up to 3 metres long — could weigh more than 500 kilograms. A model easily fits three children inside. A quarter of all living mammal species are now threatened with extinction. Among those that are endangered are some species that have only recently been found, such as the shy saola, Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, a beautiful horned ox discovered in 1992 in the wet evergreen forests of Vietnam’s Annamite Mountains that is now threatened by road construction and hunting. And the striped rabbit, Nesolagus timminsi, was discovered in 1999 on sale at a food market near the border of Laos and Vietnam. A taxidermized specimen sits at the end of the exhibition and seems a fitting symbol of the fate of so many of its threatened mammal brethren. Unless we protect them, the only place we might be able to see these fascinating animals in future is in a museum, stuffed.

Source of Information : Nature 02 July 2009

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