Visitors of all ages entertained and educated at Ice Age exhibit

Poop on a pedestal.

 

Now that’s what 6-year-old boys get excited about.

You take a couple of them to “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age,” the current visiting exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park, and they are drawn to this part of the show like flies on — well, you know.

But to be fair to them and the exhibit, there were plenty of other things the boys found interesting and fun, as so did the adults who brought them there.

That’s the beauty of “Mammoths and Mastodons.” People of all ages find the exhibit fascinating for a variety of reasons.

“(The exhibit) appeals to different interest levels and attention spans,” said Tom Demere, the museum’s curator of paleontology. “It has a lot of factual specimens and text, so the 6-year-old will have a different experience than the grandmother or the 16-year-old. These exhibitions are always a test for exhibit designers — how well it is read by different audiences.”

I can’t help but think that the poop on the pedestals (four of them) catches just about everyone’s eye, but it’s there to produce more than just giggles and gasps.

“What do we learn from poo?” posed Demere. “We learn about the diet of the mammoths — that they ate grasses like elephants do today. It can also tell us what animals lived in the area, and we can look at elephant poo today and look for the similarities between elephants and mammoths.”

This investigation taught paleontologists an amazing fact: Mammoths and the elephants in India today are more closely related genetically than these Indian elephants and today’s African elephants.

There is, of course, much more to “Mammoths and Mastodons” than spectacular scat. Our 6-year-olds found plenty of hands-on elements that captured their attention — buttons to push, giant tusks to sit upon, videos to watch, cave paintings to draw, and dueling mastodons to battle.

For those more attuned to learning a bit of science, there are homegrown fossils to see.

“Paleontologists from the museum have collected fossil remains of mammoths and mastodons from several areas of coastal San Diego County,” Demere explained. “(The exhibit) puts these local fossils into a broader historical context that includes global changes in climates, evolving faunas and floras, and dramatic pulses of extinction.”

Even though there is evidence that mammoths survived until as recently as 3,000 years ago in Siberia, they eventually did become extinct.

Why?

Probably a combination of factors, Demere said.

“(Extinction) is a complex problem with no simple answer. It could’ve been climate change. This was the end of the last glacial interval; the planet started warming. It might have been disease, or some even think it was due to a comet or meteor hitting the earth. This was also a time that humans first arrived in the New World, so the mammoths were being hunted by Paleolithic Indians.”

Thanks to the exhibition, though, we can still get a feel for what life was like in our area thousands of years ago. Don’t miss the replica of a 40,000-year-old frozen baby mammoth specimen named Lyuba (pronounced Lee-OO-bah), discovered in 2007 by a Siberian reindeer herder and sons. Also, a 3D movie, “Titans of the Ice Age,” is included with admission, and there are several other exhibits throughout the museum that kids and adults alike will enjoy.

When it’s time to take a break from the Ice Age, enter the Eocene Era on Level 1. The permanent exhibit has life-like replicas of many of the animals that roamed the jungle-like environment of this era. Kids can use one of the guide cards to find all of the animals, some of which take careful observation.

When you’re ready to return to the present, step outside and enjoy the Prado, the pedestrian-only mall that runs down the middle of the park’s museum row. Our 6-year-olds enjoyed an unplanned dip in the fountain; an exhibit by a local tortoise and turtle society (including two huge Galapagos tortoises); a bevy of noisy, exotic parrots on display courtesy of a bird rescue group; musicians; buskers; and orators extolling us to repent because the end of the world is at hand.

“Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age,” created by The Field Museum in Chicago, runs through Nov. 11. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults $17; seniors $15; military $12; children 3-12 $11. (619) 232-3821. Visit sdnhm.org.

 

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