Sunday, July 28, 2013

Life in the Ancient Seas

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through October 21, 2013

Yet another of the museum's older exhibits is closing, presumably to allow for a refurbished exhibit, although perhaps it's to make room for the new dinosaur hall that's coming in the future.  Whatever the reason, an update to this show is due and would be quite welcome.  It's an interesting display and chock full of information, but compared to some of the museum's newer offerings, it can't help but be overlooked.

This show is concerned with life in the ancient seas, those organisms that lived and died millions of years ago.  It puts our own life spans in perspective certainly, as well as human existence generally.  Humans in our present form have been around for about 200,000 years.  A good long time, you might reasonably think.  The first known creatures in the sea lived up to 540 million years ago.  Now that's a long time.

In addition, ocean life has come and gone over the years; one era comes to a halt and almost all of the species are wiped out.  Then a new era begins with mostly new creatures.  When people talk about "the end of the world," they're really talking about the end of human life on earth.  The earth will keep on spinning and new life forms will eventually appear, even if humans aren't here to see it.

The hall is arranged chronologically, which I must admit is my favorite form of arrangement.  First, we begin with the Paleozoic Era, which lasted from 540 million to 230 million years ago.  Trilobites flourished, then crashed and burned.  They were followed by the machiopods and crinoids and the first reefs were formed.  Reefs are really sea cities, they were built on the remains of earlier habitations and then spread out as they became too crowded.  230 million years ago, there was the greatest extinction in the history of life on this planet.  The display wasn't clear on what caused this cessation of existence, I gather that scientists aren't sure what happened.

Then the Mesozoic Era (230 million to 65 million years ago) followed, with the first appearance of fish, mollusks, reptiles and birds.  More extinction, then the Cenozoic Era (65 million years ago to the present).  In my view, perhaps the greatest contribution of the Cenozoic Era is the arrival of the scallop to the seas, but many other recognizable bivalves and gastropods appeared as well.  The display includes some lovely shells; I'm sure this is a mere scintilla of the museum's total collection.

Verdict: Worth a look if you're in the museum.  Lots of information, presented in a way that's intelligible to the lay person, one of the hallmarks of Natural History.  Also, if you're a museum nerd like I am, it's interesting to compare this exhibit, opened in 1990, with the Sant Ocean Hall, from 2008. 

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