Extreme Mammals Take NYC

Amelia Mularz had an EXTREME weekend visiting the newest exhibit at New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

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Heading to the American Museum of Natural History always makes me feel like a kid again. Within minutes of stepping foot in the museum this past weekend, my friend and I had already challenged each other to a T. rex impersonation face-off and battled for the greatest–or most annoying, judging from one woman’s expression–pterodactyl cry. His take on the prehistoric call sounded oddly reminiscent of 21st century screeching car brakes, while mine was more of a wounded animal sob–either way, music to our ears. We exchanged obligatory high-fives and headed towards the latest exhibit at AMNH, Extreme Mammals: The Biggest, the Smallest, and Most Amazing Mammals of All Time.
If the entryway of the museum can excite two full-grown adults to the point of shameless dino shenanigans, you can only imagine what an exhibit with a name like EXTREME MAMMALS did to us. The exhibit, which opened this past Saturday, takes a look at some of the most incredible creatures, extinct and living, to ever roam the planet. Extreme Mammals packs a punch from the moment you enter–through the legs of the largest land mammal ever (the Indricotherium, which weighed as much as four adult African elephants)–until the moment you exit–near the interactive web activity.
One look at the Indricotherium, and our child-like excitement once again took hold of us: “Whoa, look at this unicorn thing!” (actually a narwhal whale with an eight-foot tusk). “Oh my god, this elephant has a shovel for a face!” (actually a prehistoric elephant with oversized incisors). “Dude, this squirrel ate dinosaurs!” (actually, the Repenomamus).

At one point, between pointing excitedly at the fossils of a massive horned creature and peeking through a glass window at live sugar gliders, we realized we were just steps away from one of the curatorial assistants for the exhibit, William Harcourt-Smith. I had the pleasure of speaking to Harcourt-Smith and learning about the process for determining what qualifies as “extreme.”

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“We knew we needed to start with a bang–that’s where the largest and fastest mammals came in, and then we basically did an anatomical run-through,” he said. “We explored features like horns, teeth, hair, and reproduction. In addition, we looked at factors that caused these extreme characteristics, like adaptation, isolation, and quite possibly the most extreme factor of all, extinction.”

Whatever the reasoning behind each extreme mammal that made the cut, my friend and I certainly had plenty to talk about. Here’s a sampling of the exhibit fun facts that amazed us:  

-The Indian elephant is pregnant for almost two years.
-The Slaw’s jird, a small African desert rodent, mates 224 times in two hours.
-Red kangaroos can carry three different babies at three different stages at once.
-The sperm whale has the largest brain of any mammal, weighing in at 20 pounds.

So what does Harcourt-Smith find most amazing about all the extreme mammals? “I like the Ambulocetus–the walking whale. I mean, it was a whale that walked…on land! That’s really cool! Geez, I feel like a kid again,” he said as he laughed excitedly and gestured around him. Trust me Mr. Harcourt-Smith, you’re not the only one.
After checking out the exhibit, my friend and I headed over to Blondies Sports (212 W 79th St.) to satisfy our animal-like hunger with some of the city’s best chicken wings. Feeling especially extreme, I upped the spicy factor on my order from “smokin'”

to “scorchin’.” Half hour later I leaned back in the booth and looked over the 20 bare bones left on my plate and thought to myself, “Yep, the human being might just be the most extreme of all.”

Extreme Mammals runs through January 3, 2010 at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West and 79th Street, NY, NY.

Photos: Above, Indricotherium by R. Mickens; Middle, Sugar Gliders by R. Mickens; Bottom, Ambulocetus by D. Finnin. Courtesy AMNH