- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003

The new mammal hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History promises to be a feast for the senses: In every nook and cranny of the 25,000-square-foot space there are things to see, hear and feel.

“We’re targeting 6- to 12-year-olds and their families, and we wanted to make this hall as active as possible while making it elegant and giving the animals the space they deserve,” says Elizabeth Musteen, project manager of the hall, which opens Saturday.

The exhibit is housed in the west wing of the museum in the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, and the innovative spaces used for the 274 mammal specimens include the ceiling, the floor, glass cases, walls, windows and trees. Yes, the animals are everywhere, surrounding the visitor.

Some of the animal specimens are old and were featured in the old mammal hall, which also was in the west wing, before it closed in 1997 for renovations.

One of the old-timers is a South American monkey that dates to the 1890s. Another old specimen on display is a white rhinoceros collected by Theodore Roosevelt as part of the 1909 Smithsonian African Expedition.

Most of the exhibit features, however, are new, high-tech and/or interactive.

“Children can step into a hominid’s footprint to see how their foot compares to it,” Ms. Musteen says.

The fossilized footstep belongs to a 1.5-million-year-old hominid, one of man’s earliest relatives. It’s about a woman’s size 8 in today’s world.

Other touch elements include a leathery platypus egg and a beaver skull.

The exhibit’s various sound elements include a several-minute segment of an approaching and then exploding thunderstorm in the African savanna.

“We want to get across how sudden and dramatic a rainstorm in the savanna can be,” Ms. Musteen says.

Aside from the African savanna, the exhibit features several other geographic locations, including three North American habitats (the Arctic, the prairie and the temperate forest), the South American rain forest, and Australian forests and grasslands, the homes of koalas and kangaroos.

“We show how different types of kangaroos have adapted to their particular habitat,” Ms. Musteen says.

The red kangaroo, which hops across the grasslands, has better-developed legs and feet than tree-climbing kangaroos.

Another example of adaptation and evolution is how horned animals look different depending on their habitat. If they are in a very wooded area, their horns likely point backward, as they do on the bongo, a type of African forest antelope. If the animal lives in a habitat with few or no trees, however, its horns will point straight out, as they do on the wildebeest.

For all the diversity in the mammal world, which consists of more than 5,000 different kinds of animals, there are many similarities. These shared traits are featured prominently in the exhibit, with the theme “Welcome to the Mammal Family Reunion! Come meet your relatives.”

The first section of the exhibit identifies the features that make a mammal a mammal. They include having hair and a particular kind of ear bone and mothers nursing their babies.

“In the orientation, we want to show visitors that animals do humanlike things, like grooming themselves and sneezing,” Ms. Musteen says. “We want children to say, ‘I do that too,’ and realize that we’re all mammals.”

FUN FACTS:

• THERE ARE MORE THAN 5,000 MAMMAL SPECIES ON EARTH.

• WHEN THE FIRST MAMMAL EVOLVED ABOUT 210 MILLION YEARS AGO, ALL OF EARTH’S LAND WAS JOINED IN A SUPERCONTINENT CALLED PANGEA.

MNEARLY 200 KINDS OF MAMMALS LIVE IN SOUTH AMERICA’S AMAZONIAN RAIN FOREST — MORE THAN IN ANY OTHER HABITAT ON EARTH.

• TOTALING MORE THAN 2,020 SPECIES, RODENTS ARE THE LARGEST GROUP OF LIVING MAMMALS. BATS ARE THE SECOND-LARGEST GROUP WITH 1,100 SPECIES.

MWHEN WILDEBEESTS JOURNEY THROUGH AFRICA, THEIR HERDS CAN COMPRISE UP TO 500,000 ANIMALS. THEY MIGRATE MORE THAN 900 MILES EVERY YEAR IN SEARCH OF FOOD.

• FLYING SQUIRRELS DO NOT ACTUALLY FLY. THEY GLIDE THROUGH THE AIR, SOMETIMES FOR DISTANCES FIVE TIMES THE LENGTH OF A FOOTBALL FIELD. BATS ARE THE ONLY MAMMALS THAT TRULY CAN FLY.

• A GIRAFFE’S TONGUE CAN REACH OUT UP TO 21 INCHES.

• CHEETAHS, THE FASTEST-RUNNING MAMMALS ON EARTH, CAN REACH SPEEDS OF 60 MPH.

• ZEBRAS’ STRIPES MAKE IT HARDER TO DISTINGUISH ONE ANIMAL FROM ANOTHER, SO PREDATORS HAVE A DIFFICULT TIME SINGLING OUT A ZEBRA FOR PREY.

MHIPPOPOTAMUSES CAN STAY UNDERWATER FOR UP TO 30 MINUTES.

• POLAR BEARS HAVE FAT, OR BLUBBER, UP TO ALMOST 5 INCHES THICK THAT PROVIDES WARMTH AND BUOYANCY DURING LONG SWIMS.

• A WHALE’S BLUBBER LAYER CAN BE AS MUCH AS 3.3 FEET THICK.

MWITH UP TO 700,000 HAIRS IN AN AREA THE SIZE OF A POSTAGE STAMP, SEA OTTERS’ FUR IS THE DENSEST OF ANY LIVING MAMMAL’S.

MANTEATERS CAN CONSUME ABOUT 30,000 INSECTS EACH DAY.

SOURCE: SMITHSONIAN’S NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is located at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW in the District.

Directions: The museum is located on the Mall. It is accessible from the Smithsonian stop on Metro’s Orange Line.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Admission: Free

Parking: Limited street parking is available.

Note: The exhibit opens to the public Saturday. Its target audience is families with children ages 6 to 12.

Information: Call 202/357-2700 or visit www.mnh.si.edu.


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