Extinction: Not the end of the World? asks Natural History Museum

By Richard Moss | 08 February 2013

Exhibition preview: Extinction: Not the end of the World?, Natural History Museum, London, until September 8 2013

A close up photo of a tiger with green eyes and its mouth slightly open revealing teeth
Tiger (Panthera tigris). As well as having their habitat destroyed, tigers are heavily poached. Illegal trade in tiger skin, bone, meat and tonics is a major threat. This has led to their recent disappearance from large areas of otherwise suitable habitat© Natural History Museum
Extinction is not always as it appears. During the past 500 years, 151 bird species have disappeared –  19 of them since 1975. On the other hand, the smallpox virus, responsible for between 200 and 400 million deaths, became extinct in 1979.

The Natural History Museum is attempting pick the bones out of this dichotomy by going “beyond the dodos and the dinosaurs”, to look at how extinction has been a force for change, life and diversity on planet earth.

That said, with a big topic like this, both the dinosaurs and the dodo do make a predictable but welcome appearance.  The giant skull of Cassosaurus, a great, land-based dinosaur which became extinct 65 million years ago in the last mass extinction, welcomes visitors to this family friendly exhibition.

It’s an impressive sight, but it’s not just here to look imposing but rather to set the record straight: that extinction isn’t just an end, but also a beginning.

A photo of a dark purple or black coloured beetle with four feet at its front
Lord Howe stick insect (Dryococelus australis). Nicknamed the land lobster, this stick insect was eaten by black rats brought to Lord Howe Island near Australia by a shipwreck. It was thought to have died out around 1930, but in 2001 a tiny population was discovered surviving on a tiny island just off the coast. A captive breeding programme is now underway in Australia© Natural History Museum
“The end of dinosaurs led to the diversity of life we have around us today,” says Alex Fairhead, exhibition developer at the Natural History Museum.

“The first thing you think about extinction is death, but it’s actually part of a natural cycle of life and new species.

“What we’re trying to do here is look at mass extinctions, the causes of them and the types of life that disappeared in the past to try and understand what’s happening today.

“The mass extinctions of the past weren’t usually caused by once thing, like a meteorite or volcanic explosion, but rather a combination of events that combined to cause a perfect storm.”

Add in the nature of human impact and the reasons for extinction become more complex and pressing. The demise of the Irish Elk, conjured here via an impressive pair of antlers and a CGI recreation, is revealed as resulting from a combination of non-man made climate change and human hunting.

More recent extinctions by the hand of humans do, however, include the Great Auk and, of course, the Dodo. Anatomically correct recreations of both feature here.

Similarly, the Passenger Pigeon which once filled the skies of North America was slaughtered into extinction by hunting, the last one dying in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

On the flipside, scientists have discovered new species such as the smallest fish in the world, which lives in the swamps of South East Asia. Conservation success stories include the Arabian Orynx, which disappeared in the wild but was reintroduced following a captive breeding programme.

Similarly, a group of 15 live pupfish from Mexico – extinct in the wild but part of a breeding programme at London Zoo – swim around happily in a fish tank to attest to man’s ability to rescue species from the brink.

Other species on the edge of extinction include the North American bison, which has been saved by conservation efforts, and the tiger – an icon of conservation – flanked here by a tiger fur coat and a taxidermy baby tiger loaned by the London Wildlife Crime Unit. Both bring home the sickening trade in endangered species.

An invasive species line up – dogs, cats, grey squirrels and black rats who have wreaked havoc on indigenous wildlife species, reminds us of the role our domestic pets play. This being a family exhibition, there is also the chance to vote on conservation issues and a play huge interactive game allowing younger visitors to move a species around the globe while trying to avoid the chilling winds that cause their extinction.

Detailed text goes into some of the more detailed science behind conservation, but a discreet mix of specimens, films, hands-on exhibits and interactives brings the themes in the exhibition home vividly to life.

And it’s not all doom and gloom. One of the tiniest specimens on show is the common shrew.

“From a creature very similar to this evolved us, mammals, whales, bats… all animals,” adds Fairhead. “Once a species dies out, it’s gone. Slowly over time things will recover, but would we ourselves be able to survive?”  Now there’s food for thought.

  • Open 10am-5.50pm (10.30pm final Friday of each month). Admission £9/£4.50 (free for under-4s, family ticket £24). Book online.

More pictures:

A photo of a black and white seabird appearing to plunge down and forward over rocks
Great auk (Pinguinus impennis). Hundreds of thousands of great auks used to swim in and around the North Atlantic. Now you only find them in museums. Hunted and collected for their eggs, feathers, meat and as prized objects, the last great auks were spotted in 1852 off the Newfoundland Banks© Natural History Museum
A photo of a kind of prehistoric goat with long antlers protruding from its head
Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx). The last wild Arabian oryx was probably shot in 1972. Thanks to captive breeding programmes and reintroductions, there are now 1,000 individuals in the wild© Natural History Museum
A photo of a deer head with two huge dark red and blue metallic antlers protruding
Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus). This giant deer roamed grasslands from Ireland through to Siberia. Yet as the last ice age came to an end around 10,000 years ago, its habitat and food supply declined dramatically. Small populations had survived ice ages in the past, so experts think it was the added stress of hunting by humans that finally caused their end© Natural History Museum
A close up photo of a dodo with dark and light brown feathers and a white beak
Dodo (Raphy cucullatus). An icon of extinction, this flightless bird was actually highly successful in its home in Mauritius until rats, goats, pigs and monkeys were introduced by sailors. This newly commissioned specimen is a more scientifically accurate representation© Natural History Museum
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