Exhibit Explores World of Weird Mammals

A Chinese pangolin preserved by taxidermy is displayed in the new exhibit "Extreme Mammals" at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Tuesday, May 12, 2009.

A Chinese pangolin preserved by taxidermy.

Associated Press SHARE

Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK—Not all mammals are created equal.

The largest land mammal that ever existed was 15 feet tall, while the tiniest was just 1.6 inches. Some hop, burrow underground, climb trees and fly. Some use two feet, others four. There are 5,400 mammals in all, which makes for a lot of variety.

"Extreme Mammals: The Biggest, Smallest and Most Amazing Mammals of All Time," a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, demonstrates the wondrous diversity of these creatures, both extinct, living and newly discovered.

The exhibit, which opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 3, 2010, "shows how weird and extreme mammals can be in their adaptation," William Harcourt-Smith of the museum's department of vertebrate paleontology, said.

It allows visitors to "encounter their closest relatives" through the exploration of living and fossil mammals together, added John Flynn, the show's curator.

Specimens include an egg-laying platypus, the recently extinct Tasmanian wolf and a model of an extinct walking whale, a type of giant sea mammal that developed legs and feet.

The show also features a diorama of Ellesmere Island, the once warm and humid swamps and forest found in the Arctic some 50 million years ago populated by turtles, crocodiles and the hippopotamus-looking coryphodons. Today, Ellesmere is a tundra wasteland that is home to polar bears, penguins and Arctic bears.

As visitors enter the exhibition, they come face-to-face, or face-to-giant feet, with the largest mammal ever to walk the Earth — the dinosaur-sized African elephant Indricotherium that weighed 20 tons and lived more than 23 million years ago. As visitors scoot under its belly, they come across the smallest mammal that ever lived, the molelike Batodonoides.

The only example of a live mammal in the show is that of the Sugar Glider, a chipmunk-looking creature with membrane wings that allow it to glide hundreds of feet from tree to tree.

A school group from the Bronx, which got an advance look at the show, observed a handful of the creatures scampering around.

"I love this exhibition, it's so extreme," said Mark Siracusa, a 10-year-old from P.S. 71. "I learned that the Sugar Gliders are nocturnal. There's so much to learn here."

Curatorial Assistant Ted Macrini likened them to flying squirrels, although they are more closely related to the kangaroo and koala.

The exhibition answers such questions as, "What makes a mammal extreme?" (a four-ton tongue or venom-shooting tail). "What makes a mammal normal?" (depends on what you're comparing). Finally, "What makes a mammal?"

The last question is particularly intriguing because, although most children learn that mammals are warm-blooded, have hair and give birth, the show demonstrates that not all mammals have hair or nurse their young. Some lay eggs instead, like the prickly anteater.

In a video, visitors learn that elephants are pregnant for almost two years while opossums give birth after just a 12-day gestation.

"Extreme Mammals" traces the ancestry and evolution of mammals over the course of 200 million years. They range from the cat-sized Repenomamus that ate small dinosaurs to today's smallest living mammal, the bumblebee bat, discovered by scientists in 1974, and the stripped rabbit recently discovered in a remote region of Vietnam.

Despite the vast differences among mammals, the exhibition curators noted that "we all still have a few things in common — like three tiny bones in our middle ear."


On The Net: