Puijila darwini © AMNH/D. Finnin
Is talking to enthusiastic scientists with a story to tell. When I was at the AMNH Extreme Mammals preview on Tuesday, I talked with Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, one of the scientists who discovered this fossil, Puijila darwini. It’s an exciting find: a pre-pinniped (pinnipeds are a group of animals that include seals and– a personal favorite here– walruses). This animal could walk as well as swim and probably looked a little an otter. But other features, such as the teeth, make the connection to their coastal kin. Here’s the research paper in Nature, Nature‘s Behind the Paper (both require subscriptions), and a National Geographic News story.
It’s fun science, and I’m sure as a former laboratory scientist that I romanticize the whole field component of heading out into the wild world of the Arctic for a month in the summer to look for fossils. It’s hard work, too. But talking with her about the work, the excitement of the find, the work they hope to do this summer, I caught the buzz, too. One of the great perks of my job is the opportunity to talk with scientists who are passionate about the process and effuse that excitement. The fact that she just published a paper in Nature— well, that bit is great for her career and helps us sell a story. But, in terms of my personal enjoyment, it’s icing on the cake.
I’ve been making the rounds of interesting New York City science events this week. Yesterday morning– along with a bunch of other journalists– I got a preview of the American Museum of Natural History‘s Extreme Mammals exhibition, which opens on Saturday, May 16.
Indricotherium © AMNH/D. Finnin
Walking through the exhibit, it’s interesting to think about what we consider “normal” about mammals and how some of these examples, mostly fossils and model reconstructions, challenge that notion. The exhibit entrance is striking, a model of an ancient rhinoceros relative (Indricotherium), the largest-ever land mammal– so big that he’s the entry gate to the exhibit.
Batodonoides © AMNH/D. Finnin
Next, of course, is the smallest– a model of a bumblebee bat– a little thumb size creature about the size of those little plastic animals that you sometimes see decorating the end of kids’ pencils or pens. Evolution may be random, but here it almost seems whimsical, like nature created a beautiful toy.
Sugar glider © AMNH/ R. Mickens
However, the cute centerpiece of the exhibits are live sugar gliders– little Australian marsupials that look a little like a cross between a squirrel and a bat– flaps of skin between their front and back legs serve as parachutes that allow them to glide.
It’s a fun exhibit with lots of interesting factoids about brain size, trunks, horns, and even scales– unexpected features on some unusual creatures. So, it’s worth a stop, and save time to watch the sugar gliders.