Mammoths and Mastodonts at The Field Museum

For millions of years they survived, living in temperate climates and on the wind-swept lands of the frozen north – great beasts weighing as much as eight tons and bearing tusks up to 16 feet long. “Mammoths and Mastodonts” were wonderfully successful creatures of the Ice Age. They were a source of food and artistic inspiration for ancient peoples who lived in Europe, Asia, and North America. But despite their size and ability to adapt to different habitats, these early cousins of the elephant eventually went extinct – leaving us an abundant fossil record.

“Mammoths and Mastodonts: Titans of the Ice Age”, an exploration of these fascinating creatures, premiers at Chicago’s Field Museum March 5 and runs through September 6, 2010, before embarking on a four-year tour of 10 venues in North America and overseas. The exhibition is geared for all ages and is an experience the whole family will enjoy.

Star of the exhibition is a 40,000-year-old, intact baby mammoth specimen named Lyuba (pronounced Lee-OO-bah) that a Siberian reindeer herder and two of his sons discovered in 2007. Lyuba is, by far, the best-preserved specimen of her kind.

The exhibition, developed by The Field Museum, marks the first display of the baby mammoth in the United States, and includes not only Lyuba’s preserved body, but CT scans and other scientific evidence that confirms existing theories about her species and new insights. (Please see separate piece, More About Lyuba, for additional information.)

The 7,500-square-foot exhibition brings to life how these animals lived and their interactions with one another and with ancient humans. “Mammoths and Mastodonts” have long been popular at The Field. The Ancient Americas permanent exhibition displays spear points used by early hunters to bring down these huge beasts. The Museum’s permanent Evolving Planet exhibition features fossil skeletons and teeth of a mammoth and a mastodon, as well as large paintings by artist Charles Knight that show mammoths trudging through an ancient, snowy landscape and mastodons grazing in a grassy swamp.

“Mammoths and Mastodonts” gives Museum visitors an opportunity to delve deeper into this Ice Age world. The exhibition shows environments that awe and amaze through large-scale projections, walk-through dioramas, and virtual experiences. Mammoths and Mastodons features large, fleshed-out creatures and skeletons that visitors can touch and examine up close. Also showcased are rare and evocative objects including some of the oldest art in existence, huge skulls and tusks, weird and wonderful mammoth relatives – including dwarf mammoths – and mastodon bones collected by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark) for President Thomas Jefferson’s own collection. It also details the scientific methods used to study beasts from the past as well as their surviving relatives: modern-day elephants.

Museum visitors will discover answers to many questions, such as how these creatures balanced their heavy tusks, how much a mammoth ate in a day, and how elephants “talk” to each other.
Mammoths and Mastodons explores not only how these Ice Age creatures lived, forming herds similar in social structure to those of modern elephants, but also how they died and became extinct. It looks at the roles played by climate change, human predation, and other factors in their demise.

“These are concrete examples of the extinction process that threatens animals that we know today – animals we would hate to lose,” says Daniel C. Fisher, PhD, lead curator of the exhibition and professor of geological sciences at the University of Michigan. He is also a member of the International Mammoth Committee that supervises scientific studies of Lyuba.

“Mammoths and Mastodonts, with Lyuba at its center, makes natural history much more real to people. There’s a visceral awe that takes hold of you in looking at a specimen like Lyuba, and the exhibition as a whole demonstrates how close we can come to knowing what these animals were like,” Dr. Fisher adds.

Additional curatorial support for the exhibition comes from Bill Simpson, collections manager of The Field Museum’s world-renowned fossil vertebrates collection.

“The Ice Age world was, geologically, just a moment ago. Here in Chicago, we are living on deposits sculpted and left behind by glaciers. These deposits contain buried fossils of a fascinating array of extinct animals. Our new exhibition will take visitors back to that world,” explains Simpson.

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