Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Day of Scholarly Leisure

Having the day off, and the weather being punishingly hot, I decided that I would spend this afternoon at one of my all-time favorite places, the American Museum of Natural History. My primary goal for this museum visit was to check out two of the special programs. The first of these programs was Whales: Giants of the Deep, which was presented in conjunction with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The second exhibit I checked out was Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture.

Since the exhibits had timed entry, I was a bit rushed through Whales: Giants of the Deep- I had a 12:30PM entry for "Whales" and a 1:30PM entry for "Our Global Kitchen". I'll tackle "Whales" in this post, and put up a post about "Our Global Kitchen" tomorrow.

The "Whales" exhibit, being produced by a museum from New Zealand, also explored Maori culture. The different video displays had Maori language options, and the big displays featured both English and Maori captions- for instance, "the whale lab" is Rangahau Tohorā in Maori. The exhibit opened with a film of various whales, from bottlenose dolphins to sperm whales, in their natural habitat. The exhibit then moved on to whale evolution. The first fossil on display was the skull of Andrewsarchus, and odd meat-eating even-toed hoofed mammal. While only the skull has been found, reconstructions of the animal based on its closest relatives indicate that it may have been 4 to 5 meters in length, which would make it the largest meat-eating terrestrial mammal ever found. Features of its anatomy indicate that it is a hoofed mammal, most closely related to the hippopotomuses and whales among living mammals.

I was next greeted by the skulls of two small, relatively advanced whales, the Oligocene-Miocene Squalodon and the Oligocene Waipatia. These skulls are significant becuase they show evidence of the emergence of modern skull features indicating the evolution of echolocation (particularly a groove in the jaw which probably aided in hearing). After this display, the exhibit "turned back the clock", and showed a nice progression of whale fossils. The most primitive whale ever discovered is Pakicetus, a collie-sized quadruped which was revealed to be an ancestral whale by the structure of its auditory bulla.

Next up was a skeletal reconstruction of Ambulocetus, and amphibious creature which probably had a lifestyle similar to that of a crocodilian. To get an idea of what Ambulocetus probably looked like, this painting by Carl Buell is top-notch.

The next skeleton on display was the small, amphibious whale Kutchicetus, which has been likened to an otter.

Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, and Kutchicetus were all found in the India-Pakistan border region. In the Eocene epoch, to which these fossils date, this region formed part of the coast of the Tethys Ocean. The Eocene was marked by warm temperatures around the globe, and conditions conducive to the mammals' march to the sea to exploit its abundant food resources.

The next extinct whale on display was Dorudon, a Basilosaurid whale with a tiny pelvis decoupled from its spine, but trailing two tiny legs. Unlike Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, and Kutchicetus, Dorudon probably was completely aquatic. Next to the Dorudon was displayed the skull of another Basilosaurid wale, Zygorhiza.

Moving on to modern whales, the first modern whale skeleton on display was that of a pygmy right whale, the smallest of the filter-feeding baleen whales. This display was quickly followed by a display of the skulls of various beaked whales. The beaked whales are rarely seen, but they display a wide variety of tooth configurations, with the dentition of the strap-toothed whale being particularly bizarre.

The centerpiece of the display was a pair of mounted sperm whale skeletons, with the skeleton of the male dwarfing that of the female. Also impressive was a life-sized replica of a blue whale's heart that children could climb inside. Additionally, there was a video simulation of the dive of a sperm whale (reconstructed from data from a whale-born transmitter), culminating in the almost-cliched battle between the whale and a giant squid.

The tail end of the exhibit was an exploration of human-whale relations, with a concentration on the role of the whale in Maori society. There was also a depiction of the early European whaling industry in New Zealand, and a grim display of the tools used to kill whales and to process their blubber into whale oil. I was a bit rushed for time, so I did not spend as much time as I wished in this part of the exhibit... I will return to spend some more time to the exhibit, museum membership has its perks.

After my museum trip, I took a subway ride home that was bookended by a pint at the Dublin House on 79th St and the Punch Bowl on 238th St- two old man bars, perfectly suited to a man of leisure like myself.


Substance McGravitas said...

the Oligocene-Miocene Squalodon

The messiest of whales.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

The messiest of whales.

Well played, oh punster.