Monday, June 8, 2009

Doubt Evolution? See the Smithsonian's Ocean Exhibit

Today is World Ocean Day, and I love the coincidence with my visit yesterday to the Smithsonian's fabulous new ocean exhibit. You could easily spend a couple of days taking it all in--there are 2 hours of video alone!--but we had two hours of explanation from fish scientist Carole Baldwin who I profiled for a boating magazine a couple of years ago.

Ninety-five percent of the ocean is still unexplored, and Carole is one of the scientists who consistently find new species every time they descend to the depths. You get a real sense of how other-worldly it is in the deeps thanks to a video showing the view from a submersible as it descends. Where no light can reach, all of a sudden you see points of light given off by an infinite number of bio-luminescent creatures. It's gorgeous and amazing.

One of the most striking parts of the exhibit--and there are so many--was the huge skeleton hanging from the ceiling of an ancient ancestor of today's whales.

If you doubt evolution, or just want new ammunition to refute doubters, come see this fossil, which is irrefutable evidence of an evolutionary twist that is nothing short of astonishing.

Here's information that will dazzle your friends: Dolphins and whales evolved from a mammal or mammals who left the land and climbed back into the water.

The theory about why this happened, Carole explained, is that there was too much competition for food on land, or perhaps that there was so much food available in the ocean. Over eons, these four-legged land mammals developed the ability to feed under water and their front limbs turned into fins. Their back legs, however, shrank as they became useless, and that's what you see overhead at the exhibit: tiny, vestigial legs hanging from the skeleton. The fossil is about 35 million years old.

Validating belief in evolution, of course, is only one reason to visit this exhibit, which cost nearly $49 million to build and consumed 5 1/2 years of Carole's life as part of the team that created it. Here you can also learn why jellyfish have become so much more numerous (we've fished their predators almost out of existence), why some beaches have powdery sand and others big pebbles or rocks (crashing waves and tides wash away finer grains) and why the melting of ice in the Arctic is even more alarming than you thought (krill, that are the very basis of the food chain, eat bacteria that grow on the underside of the ice. No ice, no bacteria, no krill, no...).

You can also see a life-size model of Phoenix, a living female North Atlantic Right Whale who is known to have had two babies. Yes, there are now so few Right Whales that scientists have given them names. They are identifiable thanks to crusty patches on their skin called callocites.

The exhibit is permanent, meaning it will be at the National Museum of Natural History, which is on the National Mall, for decades. But why wait? This exhibit will dazzle and delight you in ways you can't even imagine.

1 comment:

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