One giant exhibit
Prehistoric beasts on the prowl at Boston’s Museum of Science
The skull of a mammoth from the new exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston.
The Proboscidean party may be licking its wounds right now, but at the Museum of Science in Boston, tusks and trunks are still all the rage. “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age” is on display now at the museum, offering visitors a close-up look at the ancestors and cousins of the ever-fascinating elephant and tracing their lineage from the earliest mammal to sport an oversize snout some 55 million years ago, all the way to the present-day pachyderm.
A traveling exhibit that will remain at the museum through Jan. 13, “Mammoths and Mastodons” draws from collections all over the world and features some of the most important artifacts to inform our understanding of these massive creatures, including jaws, teeth and other bones from various mammoth and mastodon species discovered all over the world. One of the most amazing objects in the exhibit is a replica of Lyuba, a 40,000-year-old baby mammoth found by a Siberian reindeer herder in 2007.
The specimen was incredibly well preserved, having been quickly buried in an air pocket beneath sediment and “pickled” by acid that entered her body through bacteria shortly after her death. Her eyes, trunk, organs and skin were all intact, and she even had a little bit of fur on her body and some food in her belly.
Based on her location and material they found clogging her trachea and esophagus, scientists speculate that Lyuba, who was just a month old at the time of her death, may have choked on mud while struggling to cross a river bed behind her mother. Scientists have gained new insights into the species, including clues to their habitat, diet and gestational periods by studying the little mammoth.
Little is certainly not the norm in this exhibit, though. There’s a reason, after all, that the word mammoth has morphed into a synonym for humongous. The most awe-inspiring objects in the exhibit are the huge, touchable reproductions of various Proboscidean species that populated our planet over the years.
The first Proboscideans lived about 55 million years ago and looked kind of like a large pig with a slightly extended blunt snout. They continued to evolve – and grow – over the millennia, branching into three separate species about six million years ago. Two of the species went on to become our present-day African and Asian elephants, while the third became the marvelous, mysterious woolly mammoths. Mammoths, therefore, are close relatives of modern-day elephants but not ancestors. Mastodons, who had blunt teeth and large, flat skulls, belonged to a different family from mammoths and elephants.
Those with a nose for science will find much to satisfy their curiosity in the jam-packed exhibit, including what the animals ate, how they behaved, how they were hunted and where they made their homes – yes, some of them probably roamed the Granite State thousands of years before it became the Granite State.
One of the biggest things we still don’t know about mammoths and mastodons is how they went extinct some 13,000 years ago. The exhibit includes a video that offers four possible explanations from the scientific community: climate change, widespread disease, a meteorite and over-hunting.
Humans are a likely culprit for the creatures’ demise. An incredibly detailed diorama shows how hunters killed mammoths and stored chunks of their meat in ponds for later use.
The exhibit also includes models of animals who co-existed with mammoths and mastodons, including an enormous Ice-age bear.
But if it celebrates all things large, “Mammoths and Mastodons” has plenty to please its little visitors, including lots of fun, hands-on displays. Kids can try to lift a mammoth-size snack, feel the vibrations of the rumbling sounds elephants make, touch a swatch of fur that resembles that thick coat mammoths probably sported and stage a wrestling match between two miniature mammoths.
(“Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age” is on display through Jan. 13 at the Museum of Science in Boston. For information, visit mos.org.)