The California Academy of Sciences’ exhibit opening Saturday has an intriguing title: “Extreme Mammals.” Upon reading the show’s lengthy subtitle, it will become clear that it’s not about teenagers pursuing sports.
No, what we have are “The Biggest, Smallest, and Most Amazing Mammals of All Time.” Still a bit hazy? Take the Macrauchenia. Please.
The big M. is an extinct South American ungulate (a mammal with hoofs), which sported a camel-like body, giraffe-like neck, and for a nose, an elephant-like trunk. Unloved by everyone, even members of its own herd, no wonder Macrauchenia became extinct 10,000 years ago.
You can see a splendid representation of it at the academy. Many other “extreme” examples make up the show — the academy’s first traveling exhibit in its new building. It arrives from a successful run in New York’s American Museum of Natural History, which, along with the San Francisco museum, created it. Other collaborators are the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
It showcases specimens from extremely large to extremely small, from a whale that could walk to a bat the size of a bumble bee, from an egg-laying platypus to a Tasmanian wolf or an Arctic seal with webbed feet instead of flippers. All are under the shadow of the Indricotherium, the rhinoceros-like largest land mammal that ever lived.
As for extreme mammals of the human kind, anthropology curator Zeray Alemseged says, “We don’t often think of ourselves as extreme mammals, since we don’t have long horns or venomous spurs. However, we are without a doubt one of the most extreme mammals that evolution has produced. Our brain-to-body weight ratio is higher than any other mammal on Earth, and our ability to make and use complex tools sets us apart from all other life forms.”
The exhibit space is not wasted on life-sized figures of “man the toolmaker,” though. Instead, there are video displays of the Homo sapiens’ peculiarities, and our relationship with the rest of Earth’s fauna.
Among the show’s most exotic presentations are life forms from extremely isolated, far-away islands as well as depictions of the consequences of the “extreme extinction” of massive global disasters during the past 500 million years.
The exhibit also features a rich mix of media displays, animated computer interactives, hands-on activities, touchable fossils, casts, taxidermy specimens and a colony of live tree shrews.
IF YOU GO
Where: California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: Opens Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; except until 6:30 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday; closes Sept. 12
Tickets: $14.95 to $24.95
Contact: (888) 670-4433, www.calacademy.org