“Anything extreme these days,” pronounced Dr. Greg Farrington, the absolutely delightful Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, “is totally cool.”
Dr. Farrington was greeting a group of local bloggers at a special sneak peek at the Academy’s new exhibit, “Extreme Mammals.” A collaboration with American Museum of Natural History in New York (which, Dr. Farrington pointed out, “has a subway stop — but we have better food”), the exhibit features some of the most incredible mammals to ever have lived: from the 20-ton Indricotherium to the 1.3 gram Batodones, and including horned beaver-like rodents like the Ceratogaulus rhinoceros, unicorn-esque narwhals, and the three-eyelidded Aye-aye. We feel like we are writing a news report about an episode of Star Trek.
But as incredible as those animals are, Dr. Farrington reminded us, “they still didn’t invent the iPod or write Hamlet.” To be fair, that’s a lot to ask of any mammal.
The sneak-peek tour was conducted by Dr. Carol Tang, the Academy’s Director of Public Programs. Dr. Tang is also a new mother: “she has a new extreme mammal herself,” chuckled Dr. Farrington before retiring from view, cupcake in hand. Did we mention he is absolutely delightful?
The exhibit itself is a crowd-pleasing collection of superlative models, dioramas, and fossils: saber-toothed cats, an animal halfway between land-mammal and whale, the armored glyptodont, koalas, and a habitat containing a live tree shrew.
Dr. Tang eyed the leaping shrew from a distance. “As a paleontologist, they tell me to stay away from the live things,” she joked.
We were particularly excited to see a model of a pangolin, which we have always held is the second-best animal anywhere on Earth (after the jerboa).
The only people who might not be pleased by the exhibit: creationists. Dr. Tang referred to a “mammalian toolbox,” with which prehistoric mammals evolved, adapted, and radiated into new species. Heresy!
“This is Beverly Hills,” said Dr. Tang, gesturing to a skeletal creature tangled in black ooze. She was referring to the La Brea Tar Pits, a rich store of fossil records wherein the Smilodon, the saber-toothed cat that is the California state fossil, was discovered. Researchers continue to find new fossils in the pits to this day.
The Smilodon isn’t the only southern Californian celebrity in the exhibit: the last mammoths on Earth are believed to have lived on Catalina Island. Climate change and human encroachment are believed to be major contributing factors in their extinction.
At the conclusion of the tour, we got an extra-awesome peek into the Academy’s massive collection of species. The below-ground vault is the most thoroughly climate-controlled part of the complex (“to get air conditioning at the Academy, you have to be a dead beetle,” Dr. Farrington observed).
“Fossil mammals are just as exotic and bizarre as the dinosaurs,” said Dr. Galen Rathbun, a Research Associate at the Academy. Dr. Rathbun was instrumental in the recent discovery of a new mammal in Namibia, a type of previously-unknown Sengi. The Academy is currently raising funds to further research the animal, which is believed to date back 40 million years and is related to aardvarks, sea cows, antelope, and elephants. Imagine what such a hodge-podge of DNA might look like, and you won’t be far off from picturing the strangely adorable Sengi.
The Extreme Mammals exhibit opens April 3 and runs until September 12.