I stared at the mounted dinosaurs and wish they’d come to life, like they did in “A Night At The Museum”.
The movie, shot here at the American Museum of Natural History, turned all the toothy behemoths loose. The Mastodon strolled down the halls as the Tyrannosaurus Rex rampaged and the Stegosaurus ran amok.
Stone Age guys scurried about wielding clubs, the Pharaoh strutted with his flail, George Washington thundered on horseback while the Maoi from Rapa Nui rocked and rapped.
Now that I’ve arrived in full daylight, everyone stayed dead and petrified.
Still, they told their tales. And I managed to scoot beneath a very upset, eighty-foot tall, forty thousand-pound Barosaurus mom defending her young from an Allosaurus, without being squished flat.
Surely, she made me feel like an ant. But I was ecstatic. I’ve never been around so many real dinosaurs, so many fossils, stuffed giant animals and dazzling minerals.
At the fossilized imprint of a duck-billed dino carcass, I inspected the texture of real dino skin for the first time, up close, awed by the tubercles that dimpled its surface, resembling bumps on a bird’s naked feet.
A Stegosaurus looms in the same hall. At first, scientists thought – wrongly – that this Jurassic herbivore which roamed the Western United States 150 million years ago, hides a second brain somewhere because his head was too small for his body.
Apparently, you don’t need a ton of gray matter to operate a hundred ton of flesh programmed just to eat and procreate.
Armored plates, bony protrusions up to 2.5 feet high, flare down the stegosaurus’ spine. Females have taller, sharper plates – prickly predator deterrents. In males, the plates seem decorative, more for mating display, like the fan tails of peacocks or roosters’ crests.
Not far away, my big bad favorite, Tyrannosaurus Rex, prepares to pounce. His two sets of 6-inch teeth arrayed on four-foot long jaws looks business-like indeed, meat-chompers par-excellence.
Moving on, I followed the Glen Rose Trackway with its 107-million-year-old series of fossilized dino footprints excavated from Texas’ Paluxy River bed. Dinos’ size varied dramatically. The 3-foot long tracks of an Apatosaurus, a 25,000-pound long-necked herbivore with a whip-like tail, dwarfed that of a small theropod – a relative of the modern ostrich, which hopped on two hind feet.
Next, I sidled up beside the Warren Mastodon as he stood riveted, at the exact moment he perished in a Newburgh, New York bog 11,000 years ago, head tilted up, gasping for air.
His smaller, hairless, modern kins, African Elephants, roam the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. Still the largest living land mammal, pachyderms now teeter at the brink of extinction.
In 1930, between 5 and 10 million elephants inhabited the savannas. Poachers coveting their ivory tusks have been slaughtering them at the rate of 100,000 per year and only 200,000 survive today.
Humans have almost wiped out the last living behemoths of the plant and the animal world. And so it is with sadness that I viewed the taxidermed Galapagos Giant Tortoise in his glass case.
This placid leathery over half-ton creature once thrived in Galapagos, the remote islands of Ecuador where Darwin developed his evolution theory.
Whalers and fur traders hauled the slow-moving, defenseless creatures by the hundreds of thousands. They stocked the animals in their ships because they can survive up to one year without food and drink and butchered them like there’s no tomorrow.
A single giant tortoise yields 200 pounds of fresh meat. Now, they don’t grow as big and are almost extinct.
Galapagos giant tortoises are one of the longest lived vertebrates, reaching almost two hundred years. They sunbathe for a couple of hours, forage for 8-9 hours and sleep 16 hours per day.
The model of the largest and most endangered animal on earth graces the Hall of Ocean Life, a 94-foot long, 21,000-pound, fiberglass, female Blue Whale, patterned after the cetacean which washed up in South America in 1925.
For its size, the over 100-ton blue whales feed on the tiniest shrimps – krill. They swim fast too, traveling up to 30 miles an hour and vocalize loudly, their sounds resonating in the depths up to 620 miles away.
Before whalers slaughtered them, these cetaceans numbered 300,00 at the most. By, 2002, only 5,000 are left. But nobody knows the real numbers. In the seas they inhabit, fishermen can spend whole lifetimes without ever seeing one.
And there’s no bringing back the over 1,400 year old, 300-foot tall Giant Sequoia from California, a cross section of which adorns the Hall of North American Forests.
Loggers cut down the mighty tree in 1891. Tragic indeed, that the sequoia, of the cypress family, resists most diseases and survives forest fires with its thick fire-resistant bark but nothing protects it from the ax of greedy humans.
They are the world’s tallest trees, reaching almost 400 feet in height and can live up to over 1,800 years. Today, it’s illegal to cut down giant sequoias – but the law came a little too late. More than 95 per cent of the original old-growth trees have already been felled.
After my simulated intergalactic travel in the Dark Universe space show, I walked down the Cosmic Pathway.
The 360-foot-long path that spirals from the exit of the Big Bang theater to the base of the Hayden Sphere lays out the 13-billion-year history of the universe, including the formation of the Milky Way, the Sun and the Earth, the first life on Earth, the production of oxygen in the oceans and the Age of Dinosaurs.
Here, a single stride equals millions of years. Hence, the human era, a mere blink of an eye, shows up at the end of the pathway as the thickness of a single human hair.
Panels on the path depicted the relative size of the universe at specific points in time. Artifacts showcased include a meteorite dating back from the birth of our solar system, a sample from the oldest rock formation on Earth, a trilobite – the first animal with eyes, plus the fossilized serrated tooth of a giant carnivorous dinosaur.
And inasmuch as love precious rocks, I couldn’t miss the Hall of Minerals.
The huge Newmont Azurite stands out among the displays. Its perfectly-formed crystals of the darkest blue looked like black spires clustered on tan calcite. Rainwater and groundwater interacting on primary copper ores created the crystal.
The miner who unearthed the Newmont Azurite in 1952 used it to pay for his drink in a bar but it’s too soft and too fragile to be cut as a gem, so it ended up as a grand museum specimen.
Same’s true for the 632-carat twelve-sided Patricia Emerald, one of the world’s biggest uncut emeralds, which resides in the same hall. The mine owner gave his daughter’s name to the gem after it was dug up in Colombia in 1920.
Next door, in the Hall of Human Origins, I stumbled on Lucy, our petite, over three million-year-old ancestor. Standing under four feet tall, “Lucy” is one of the most complete skeletons of an early hominid who lived between four and two million years ago. Scientists were playing the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” when they found her in 1974 and the name stuck.
Another find, the Folsom Spear Point, crafted from flint over 10,000 years ago and embedded in an extinct species of bison, established that humans lived and hunted in North America much earlier than previously reckoned.
Before the museum closed, I managed to say hello to my third Moai from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the Hall of Pacific Peoples.
Easter Island, 2,000 miles West of Chile, the remotest inhabited island on earth, is in my bucket list. I dream of going there to see 887 sacred Maois – basalt figures of revered ancestors that islanders carved in quarries then moved to a platform on the water’s edge.
I’ve already seen and touched three Maois in museums. The first was in the Louvre, on loan to Paris; the second, in the British Museum, London and this one, in New York.
That means I have just 884 Maois and over a hundred countries more to go.