By Bobby Panza
At the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History’s newest exhibit, you’re greeted by a long-lost elephant relative, the iconic woolly mammoth, depicted here in the process of shedding its winter coat. A few steps away, showing the duality that elephants can come in small packages too, are life-size models of an adult and calf pair of dwarf elephants (Palaeoloxodon falconeri), which lived in what is now Sicily and grew to just about 4 feet tall.
Elsewhere, a video projection of an African elephant illuminates its skeletal structure and how it processes the 300-500 pounds of food it consumes each day. These varied views of elephants, set to open to the public November 13, each tell pieces of the 60-million-year evolution of elephants and their relatives.
“Elephants are the world’s largest land animal, but we understand surprisingly little about them,” said Ross MacPhee, the museum’s curator of The Secret World of Elephants. Thanks to new research, “we’re learning new secrets about their minds, bodies, and ecological importance every day,” said MacPhee, who noted that poaching and exploitation, along with climate change and habitat loss, are pushing elephants along the path to extinction. “If we don’t act quickly, elephants could be gone before we ever truly get to know them,” he told reporters at a media preview of the exhibit.
The only time most of us really see elephants live is in a zoo, not in their real natural habitats in places like Africa and Asia, noted Lauri Halderman, museum senior vice president. “You need to spend a little time watching elephants, understanding how they behave [and] how they relate to one another,” said Halderman. “They’re so amazing in all the ways they’ve adapted. And all of the things that we recognize about elephants: the long trunk, the ears are fascinating adaptations, the ways that elephants use all of those characteristics to their advantage.”
The exhibit offers visitors touching experiences: a replica of an elephant’s thick, wrinkly skin at one station, and at another, two teeth, one from a mammoth and the other from a mastodon-like species. Feeling them gives some understanding of the differences in how these gigantic proboscideans chewed their food.
The Secret Life of Elephants also explains the “silent communication,” known as infrasound, used by elephants to speak to one another. Using their whole body — vision, touch, and smell — they send vibrations at such a low frequency that humans cannot hear them, though we can feel them. An interactive exhibit, Can you speak elephant?, lets you explore the ways elephants express themselves to friends and foes — or to signal they want to snuggle or have some fun.
Taking center stage at the exhibit is a life-size African elephant model with a projection screen that shows some of the ways elephants alter their environment. There is also an exploration of elephant poop, which features replica elephant dung that provides key nutrients for plants and other animals and helps expand plant ranges by transporting seeds.
Tickets that include admission to The Secret World of Elephants start at $28 for adults, $16.50 for children (ages 3-12), and $22.50 for seniors and students. Member preview days for The Secret World of Elephants began Friday, November 10.
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