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September 26, 2008

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Friday, September 26, 2008

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Virginia Museum of Natural History's newest temporary exhibit helps visitors learn about large elephant-like animals that roamed North America during the Ice Age.

"Tusks! Ice Age Mammoths and Mastodons" will open Saturday. The exhibit features 80 fossil specimens, artifacts and replicas of extinct animals.

Most of the specimens are real, but do not feel cheated that a few are not.

"The casts were made so accurately that they can be used for scientific research," said Ryan Barber, the museum's director of marketing.

The exhibit focuses on the period from 15 million years ago through the end of the last Ice Age - about 10,000 years ago - when elephant-like animals known as proboscideans lived in North America.

Proboscideans were large beasts named for their long, flexible trunks called proboscises. They included mastodons, shoveltuskers, gomphotheres and spiraltuskers, as well as mammoths, which date back 4 million years.

All of those animals closely resemble modern elephants, but their tusks are shaped somewhat differently.

Technically, modern elephants also are proboscideans, information obtained from the Internet shows.

Mastodons and mammoths are thought to have lived among the earth's first human inhabitants for thousands of years, according to museum officials.
Barber said to his knowledge that ancient proboscideans were much like modern elephants in that they mainly ate leaves, plants and grasses.

Due to their size, they could have been dangerous to early humans if they felt threatened, he said.

Specimens include bones both large and small, as well as teeth and other remains of the animals. One tooth on display, from a Columbian mammoth, dates back about 15,000 years and is roughly the size of two walnuts.

The exhibit also includes information on "Ice Age Neighbors" - animals that roamed the earth at the same time as the early proboscideans. They include species of turkeys, turtles, geese, bears and deer that are alive today.

There is a sand pit in which children can dig up fossils.

Two televisions show videos pertaining to the exhibit, and a film about the Ice Age is being shown in the museum's theater, Barber said.

A free visitor's guide to the exhibit is available.

"It will help you notice things you might not notice" otherwise, said Barber.
He said the museum wants visitors to take their time and study exhibits in detail, not just rush through in 10 minutes or so.

Also available is a teacher's guide showing how the exhibit relates to the state Standards of Learning.

Barber said many school groups from the Martinsville area and beyond are scheduled to visit the museum while the exhibit is there.

He expects "Tusks!" to be a major tourist draw for the museum. Based on what the museum and similar institutions have found out over the years, he said, dinosaur exhibits are the most popular but exhibits on mammoths and related animals are "the next biggest thing" that attracts visitors.

"Tusks!" was developed by the Florida Museum of Natural History and is on display through Jan. 4. The exhibit is sponsored by Virginia Uranium, which is helping the Virginia museum pay the $30,000 cost to bring it to Martinsville, according to Barber.

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