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They were the titans of the Pleistocene – long-tusked, shaggy creatures whose rumblings could be heard far across the prehistoric landscape – and a new exhibit in New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center gives visitors a close-up look at the mammoths and mastodons which once roamed much of the northern hemisphere.
Several times during my visit to the “Mammoths and Mastodons” exhibit, I found myself giggling like a little kid. Scattered among the skeletons, video kiosks, and sculptures were an array of “hands-on” science stations, one of my favorites being a simple setup which used a bit of bungee cord to show how a strong tendon helped hold up the heavy heads of mammoths. (A simple pleasure, maybe, but it was fun to turn the handle to tighten the pseudo-tendon and lift the cranium of the model mammoth.) The exhibition – originally launched at Chicago’s Field Museum – is not just a gallery of old bones; it is a prehistoric elephant graveyard in which visitors are encouraged to touch, interact, and play among the enormous bones of extinct behemoths.
The centerpiece of the exhibit, and the primary reason for its tour of multiple museums, is the exceptionally-preserved infant woolly mammoth Lyuba. Getting to see her in the flesh was a rare treat. Another baby mammoth named Effie – on display at the American Museum of Natural History – is represented by only parts of the face and forelimb, and a complete infant mammoth discovered in 1977 named Dima was partially ruined when researchers tried to preserve her by soaking her in a vat of paraffin. Lyuba, while denuded of almost all of her fuzzy coat, has thankfully survived the preservation process intact, and the opportunity to study her remains first hand is an amazing experience. The body on display is not a cast or model or sculpture but the genuine article – a unique part of a prehistoric ecosystem which has survived for thousands and thousands of years. There is no substitute for seeing Lyuba for yourself.
There is much more to the Mammoths and Mastodons exhibit than Lyuba, though. She is the headliner, but her place is in the middle of a much larger exhibit that places woolly mammoths in evolutionary, geological, and ecological context.
The exhibit starts with an introduction to the various branches of the elephant family tree. Phiomia, Deinotherium, Amebelodon, and other archaic proboscideans are represented by both fossils and models, and the artwork in the exhibit is wonderful. The full-scale sculpture of the Moeritherium – a semi-aquatic proboscidean which looked like a hippo/hyrax hybrid – was especially well-done, and it was encouraging to see so many seldom-discussed genera presented as an introduction to the more familiar mammoths and mastodons.
Frustratingly, however, the exhibit’s evolution station contained a false “Mammoth March of Progress” set in front of a branching evolutionary tree of proboscideans. Starting at Moeritherium, jumping to the recent mammoths, and ending with an African elephant, the set of bronze statues creates the impression of a straight-line progression of elephant evolution. The series it represents is not consistent with the branching tree behind it, and a prominent signboard next to it affirms that mammoths were not ancestral to living elephants, so it was aggravating to see the old “missing link” imagery employed. If such a series of bronze proboscideans was desired, I think the exhibitors should have followed the design of a similar set of sculptures on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History which places each extinct elephant on a branching set of lines and underscores the fact that there was no single “main line” of elephant evolution.
My persistent frustration with “March of Progress” imagery aside, it was encouraging to see the evolution of elephants given such prominent space. The rest of the exhibit focuses on the elephants of Pleistocene North America – the Columbian and woolly mammoths and the American mastodon. The amount of detail each exhibit case provided was excellent. One display compared the lower jaws of a young mammoth which was still on its first set of molars with that of an old individual with worn down teeth and a good deal of spongy bone in its jaw. Another explained how we can tell the age of mammoths by looking at whether the epiphyses on their arm and leg bones – the parts at the ends which articulate with other bones – are fused or are still mostly made of cartilage. (Even better, this lesson shows up elsewhere in this exhibit in comparing large mammoths with the pygmy mammoths of Santa Rosa Island, California.)
These cases stood among displays introducing visitors to the contemporaries of mammoths, such as short-faced bears, sabercats, horses, camels, ground sloths, and other creatures. The mammoths and mastodons are the exhibit’s stars, but the presence of their ecological co-stars reinforces the fact that North America was quite different in the not-so-distant past.
Extinction played a major role in the exhibit, as well. In addition to presenting the plight of modern elephants, the exhibit discusses the end-Pleistocene extinction which wiped out the mammoths (in addition to many other species). Hunting by humans, a hyperdisease, comet impact, and climate change are all mentioned as possible culprits, but the exhibit states that none of these hypotheses are without problems. We still don’t know exactly why the mammoths disappeared. Given how heated the rhetoric can get on the topic of the Pleistocene extinction among scientists, it was good to see the exhibit take a more provisional tone, and the animated short explaining each of the ideas was cute enough to appeal to kids without being dumbed-down or condescending. (In style, it reminded me of some of the old Disney cartoons such as “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom“.)
The other videos in the exhibit were just as good. The information was complex enough to keep adults interested, but different techniques (such as having children pop up to explain concepts to young visitors) were used to make the science of paleontology accessible to kids, too. Through a variety of techniques the exhibit allowed visitors to engage at different levels – it was entertaining enough for kids, but also had enough in-depth information for adults and even those already well-versed in paleontology to enjoy it.
After visiting the exhibit, it is easy to see why mammoths and mastodons are the icons of the ice age. They were familiar, yet strange, and lived so close to the modern era that it feels as if they should still persist in some isolated place cordoned off from extinction. The last of them survived until about 4,000 years ago, but, as Georges Cuvier recognized two centuries ago, there are no more mammoths or mastodons left. They are gone forever, but now and then it is good to walk among them and wonder what their world was like.