Field Museum's new exhibit a mammoth project

  • An international team of scientists studied Lyuba after her discovery, performing an autopsy and DNA analysis.

    An international team of scientists studied Lyuba after her discovery, performing an autopsy and DNA analysis. Photos courtesy of the Field Museum

 
By Samantha Nelson
Posted3/9/2010 12:01 AM

For 40,000 years, the baby woolly mammoth now known as Lyuba lay frozen in Siberia, until a nomadic reindeer herder stumbled upon her in 2007. The nearly perfectly preserved specimen became the object of intense scientific study, as researchers were able to use her to learn more about the giant prehistoric mammals through analyzing her teeth, tissue and even the contents of her stomach.

The Field Museum had already wanted to put together an exhibit on the Ice Age, which would then travel to other museums around the world. Staff members began working with Russia to try to secure Lyuba as the centerpiece for the exhibit. The negotiations took 18 months, which David Foster, vice president of exhibitions, compared to trying to persuade the United States government to loan out the original Declaration of Independence.

 

"[Lyuba is] a national treasure so to speak," he said. "They were very uneasy about letting it out of their care for a five-year tour."

Their efforts were successful, and the result is "Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age." The treasured Lyuba will spend the first six months of her journey in Chicago as part of an exhibit geared toward educating visitors on the massive prehistoric mammals, their predecessors, contemporaries and modern relatives. After its Chicago debut, the exhibit will go on a 10-city tour.

The 7,500-square-foot exhibition opens with a time-lapse regression video of the area around the Field Museum. It starts with the deconstruction of buildings, giving way to open plains, and then follows the rise and recession of glaciers before ending by showing images of what the area might have been like 20,000 years ago when families of trumpeting mammoths roamed the land.

The next area chronicles an evolutionary family tree. It begins with a rabbit-sized mammal that lived more than 55 million years ago and was the common ancestor for mammoths, mastodons and today's Asian and African elephants. Scientists from the Field Museum worked with a studio to bring life to ancient bones, producing full-sized models of strange creatures including a hippolike animal with a long snout, and the head of an amebelodon, an early elephant ancestor which had a second set of shovel-like tusks. While the skulls are under glass, visitors are encouraged to touch the models to get a feel for the creatures' rough skin, smooth tusks and bristly hair.

"We wanted it as accessible as possible," said exhibition developer Franck Mercurio. "Pretty much everything you can touch."

While the most common images of mammoths portray the woolly beasts as treading across snow-covered land, the exhibit strives to show the diversity of habitats where the creatures lived. While most of the best specimens were recovered from icy climates, the animals dwelled in woodlands, and smaller varieties lived on islands. North American mammoths averaged 16 feet tall. They lived side by side but did not compete with mastodons, who ate twigs and bark instead of grasses. Shorter and stockier with thicker bones, mastodons averaged 10 feet in height.

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Video is used to teach particularly complex subjects, such as how scientists have learned so much about mammoths and mastodons and theories on how the animals became extinct. The videos integrate animations and are often narrated by kids in order to make the science accessible to all ages.

An early favorite with children has been a game where two players can use Wiimotes to explore a cave with paintings of prehistoric creatures. Other interactive elements let visitors try to match footprints and piles of dung with the creatures that left them or use models to imitate fighting with tusks.

Mammoths and mastodons may be the stars of the show, but the exhibit also features models of the massive bears and scimitar-toothed cats that hunted throughout the areas where the big herbivores made their homes. Space is also devoted to how prehistoric humans hunted the great beasts and used their bones to build homes and make jewelry and tools. Ancient artifacts show images of mammoths carved in stone and reindeer antlers.

While mammoths may now only live on in museums, the exhibit ends by asking visitors to help support conservation efforts geared toward helping their modern cousins thrive.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

If you go

"Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age"

Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, (312) 922-9410, fieldmuseum.org

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Sept. 6

Admission: $23 adults, $20 seniors and students with ID, $13 children ages 3-11