Extreme mammals

The Scientist visits a brand new exhibit that sheds a little light on how bizarre our family tree really is

Margaret Guthrie
May 14, 2009
Diversity of form and function defines Earth's inhabitants, past and present. And Class Mammalia is arguably biology's best example of life's stunning variation. That diversity is on display at the American Museum of Natural History's newest exhibition, linkurl:__Extreme Mammals: The biggest, smallest, and most amazing mammals of all time__.;http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/extrememammals/ The AMNH in New York City is well equipped for such a display, with decades of accumulated experience collecting and cataloging mammalian diversity. "We have 280,000 [mammalian] specimens gathered over 100 years," said Nancy Simmons, curator-in-charge of the museum's mammalogy department, after a press preview of the exhibit. "We're hard to beat for morphological diversity."Walking under the belly of the largest land mammal that ever existed is a bit unnerving, even if it's only a recreation. As you move underneath linkurl:__Indricotherium__;http://www.prehistory.com/indricth.htm a recorded voice informs you that it weighed about 20 tons, or the same as 3 or 4 African elephants....
variation. That diversity is on display at the American Museum of Natural History's newest exhibition, linkurl:__Extreme Mammals: The biggest, smallest, and most amazing mammals of all time__.;http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/extrememammals/ The AMNH in New York City is well equipped for such a display, with decades of accumulated experience collecting and cataloging mammalian diversity. "We have 280,000 [mammalian] specimens gathered over 100 years," said Nancy Simmons, curator-in-charge of the museum's mammalogy department, after a press preview of the exhibit. "We're hard to beat for morphological diversity."Walking under the belly of the largest land mammal that ever existed is a bit unnerving, even if it's only a recreation. As you move underneath linkurl:__Indricotherium__;http://www.prehistory.com/indricth.htm a recorded voice informs you that it weighed about 20 tons, or the same as 3 or 4 African elephants. A guilty thought creeps in: Maybe there's an upside to extinction.Once safely inside the exhibit, a lighted plexiglass case displays a tiny creature atop what looks like a blade of grass. __Batodonoides vanhouteni__, extinct relative of shrews and voles, was so small that three of them would fit in a teaspoon.Just beyond this jarring juxtaposition is the mammalian tree of life, or cladogram, tracing the eons and illustrating how present day mammals evolved from a common ancestor.

Flash Content

Right around the corner is a human skeleton posed with that of an opossum and a linkurl:__Uintatherium__.;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUJxex-FNrM&NR=1 A placard asks the question: "What traits are 'extreme' and what are 'normal?'" The __Uintatherium__, a six-horned, rhinoceros-like herbivore and one of our more distant mammalian relatives, has a truly awe inspiring skull. Toothy and horny and obviously extreme. According to the exhibit, opossums make the extreme list thanks to their prehensile tails and their marsupialness, while we humans sneak into the extreme category just because of our unique brain size and our curious bipedalism.The exhibit then guides the visitor through a gauntlet of bizarre noses, impressive horns, and oddball mammals, such as the egg-laying, duck-billed platypus.Then the exhibit ties all this variation together with one of the essential mammalian features: milk. All mammals make milk, and the various delivery systems are detailed in a video showing a human baby nursing, tiny embryonic opossums suckling and even a worm-like platypus absorbing milk through its mother's abdominal skin.An enclosure housing a family of live sugar gliders -- Australian tree-dwelling marsupials -- is sure to captivate the exhibit's younger visitors. Expect to encounter gaggles of children in various states of arousal over the adorable mammal's frenzied activities as they glide around their nocturnal habitat. Interactive displays then get visitors into the action. One can get bats flying, gazelles bounding, and bears ambling with the push of buttons. Smaller guests can even try on the armored shell of a pangolin, an Asian anteater and evolutionary kin to the armadillo.Near the end of this tour through mammalian extremity, the visitor is left with something to think about as the stark reality of extinction is hammered home with a stroll through a mock-up of the LaBrea tar pits. Ghosts of species past crowd the darkened space. Signs warn that another mammal, __Homo sapiens__, may be contributing to the planet's next mass extinction event. The Tasmanian wolf, or thylacine, is on display as a potent example of man's destructive power.While the exhibition is clearly geared to students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, the incredible depth and breadth of the research that informs the exhibition will be apparent to visitors of all ages. For older adults what's clear is the enormous amount of fascinating scientific information that has come to light since our school days.The exhibit imparts this information in a playful enough way to engage and captivate young potential scientists. For teachers, comprehensive lesson plans and exhibition activities are available that reinforce the research and planning that went into this very intriguing and worthwhile exhibition.__Extreme Mammals__ opens on Saturday, May 16, and is on view at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City through January 3, 2010.__Correction (May 15): The original version of this story incorrectly stated that __Indricotherium__ was the largest mammal that ever existed. It was in fact the largest land mammal to ever roam the Earth. Our apologies to the mighty blue whale. __The Scientist__ regrets the error.__ __Correction (May 21): The original version of this story incorrectly stated that __Uintatherium__ is our ancient ancestor. It is actually more likely that humans share a common ancestor with this extinct creature, making it a distant relation, not technically an ancestor. __The Scientist__ regrets the error.__
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Sequencing the extinct;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/55333/
[12th January 2009]*linkurl:The Disputed Rise of Mammals;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55302/
[January 2009]*linkurl:Earliest fossil seal found;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55653/
[22nd April 2009]

Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?