- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

A skull the size of an ottoman. A head shaped like a boomerang. A fin that looks like a bristly brush.

These are features of several creatures that lived millions of years ago but have been given new life at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall in Northwest.

“Bizarre Beasts: Past and Present,” which will run through early February, combines scientific exploration with artistic restoration. The show features models of some of the odd creatures that roamed Earth hundreds of millions of years ago.

It took Colorado artist Gary Staab about four years to research, envision and create the creature models. Because some of them left behind limited remains in fossils, the research alone was a lengthy process, Mr. Staab says.

“I would happen upon interesting animals [in my research] and thought that would make a really neat sculpture,” Mr. Staab says. “I developed a wish list of animals I wanted to create. Some of them have never been seen by the public. Some of them had great fossils but had never been fleshed out.”

The result is pure fun. The exhibit re-creates esoteric beasts such as the helicoprion, a whorl-tooth shark of the Permian Period. The helicoprion’s lower jaw featured a circular-saw-like row of teeth.

Though the whorl-tooth shark is a novelty to visitors to the exhibit, it actually was a “very successful shark” in its day, Mr. Staab points out.

“It was around for tens of millions of years,” he says. “Compare that to species today, most of which are around for about 3 million years.

Sharks have their own area of the display, where the scrub-brush shark and its bristly fin and the hammerhead shark — whose relatives are alive today — are part of the show.

Nearby is the sailfin salamander, whose bright colors worked to attract a mate, and the diplocaulus, a boomerang-headed salamander that scientists say lived 275 million years ago.

In the Radical Reptiles section, the star of the show is the pterosaur. This creature had an elongated jaw with 3-inch teeth, a 15-foot wing span and a furry body. Flying reptiles such as the pterosaur, which lived 110 million years ago, are especially intriguing to those who study natural history today, Mr. Staab says.

“They are not dinosaurs,” he says. “They are not mammals, but they do have hair. It puts them in their own branch of the family tree.”

Nearby, a video titled “Raising the Dead” shows how the pterosaur model was created — from a steel skeleton to sculpted muscles and skin to a rubber mold that makes the model easier to move.

In the bird section, the diatryma looms large. This model — which looks like a cross between a mud-colored Big Bird, a 6-foot-tall chicken and a pony — was the top predator of the end of the Cretaceous Period, the exhibit explains.

Another attention-getter is the replica of the shovel-tooth elephant, which lived in China a mere 7 million years ago.

The exhibit points out that many creatures with unique noses are hard to re-create because soft tissue does not preserve as well as bones.

There are plenty of hands-on activities at the “Bizarre Beasts” exhibit, so even the smallest visitors will be entertained — provided they are not afraid of some of the menacing-looking models.

There are touch screens where visitors can mix and match animals’ characteristics to see whether they would adapt to the weather and their environment. Young visitors can do a brass rubbing of fossils or put together a giant puzzle of stegosaurus bones.

Finally, another video closes the visit, showing some of the more unusual creatures — the jellyfish, elephant and peacock, among them — living today.

When you go:

Location: “Bizarre Beasts: Past and Present” will be on display at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall, 17th and M streets Northwest, through early February.

Hours: Explorers Hall is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. It is closed Dec. 25.

Admission: Free

Parking: Limited street and meter parking are nearby. The nearest Metro stop is Farragut North on the Red Line.

More info: 202/857-7588 or www.nationalgeographic.com/ museum.

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