Survival of the Fittest

Alex Barbera on the American Museum of Natural History’s Life at the Limits

Imagine living in a world with water monsters. Imagine existing in a time with astronaut bugs, dancing birds, and jet-propelling mollusks.

Well, there’s no need to imagine, because we already do.

With Life at the Limits, New York’s American Museum of Natural History sheds light on about a hundred of the most underrated creatures on our planet. The exhibit begins with the star of the show: the tardigrade. Also known as water bears and moss piglets, tardigrades have the potential to shrink into a ball and practically shut down their vital systems in harsh conditions. Through these methods, they can survive boiling and freezing temperatures, as well as the severe environment of space’s vacuum. Gigantic hanging replicas of the creatures, which look like moles, greet visitors at the door with a three-minute video, which organizes the animals featured throughout the room based on their unique survival skills.

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From the very beginning of this exhibit, the room overflows with information and is all encompassing in sensory experience. It starts with the natural beginning of every organism’s very different life: reproduction. There is a 9-foot, life-size model of a titan arum plant, which releases a smell like rotting flesh to attract insects and spread its pollen. An entire wooden board in front of the faux flower is devoted to an explanation of its pollination process. Despite containing clever phrases on each board, the exhaustive text throughout the exhibit can be a bit overwhelming if it is isn’t approached with expert skimming skills.

In this “getting started” segment, there is a small video screen that shows mating techniques across species on a loop. The most fascinating was that of a colorful little bird, whose seductive strut seems to be inspired by Michael Jackson’s famous moonwalk. Sounds of mating calls echo from further down the path and I see a projection of coral’s reproductive techniques on a dark wall in front of me. A wave of small white lights rises from the coral replica to show their simultaneous release of male and female cells based on stages of the moon.

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I am mesmerized by the slow moving lights until I see the tank of axolotls across from it; they pull me in like a magnet. Axolotls, which actually translate to ‘water monster’ in the Aztec language, look like a mix between dragons and catfish. Instead of the normal pink color I’m used to seeing (that is, when I look them up on Youtube), these were a slate grey with dark polka dots. They are known for the feathery gills that are located not inside, but outside their bodies.

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Just past the axolotls in the center of a curvy water-esque walkway, are nautiluses, or mollusks that move from jet propulsion. They rock back and forth, their tentacles billowing in the water, as if saying hello. The informational board in front of the mollusk tank tells me that this mode of movement started with their ancestors, who existed before the dinosaurs, and explains their biological structure with a thorough, yet simple diagram.

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With the mollusks comes the “moving on” segment of the exhibit, which highlights unique movement in animals. This includes a huge, angular plasma screen hanging above visitors that shows examples of blue ribbon eels swishing their way through the sea, fisherman bats who hunt using echolocation, insects that glide across the surface of water, and more. Even though this section is focused on movement, it does encourage visitors to take a seat on a comfortable cushioned bench to regain energy. They keep one’s mind going, however, by placing plaques and displays just in front of the seats, so one can continue to learn while recharging the body’s batteries. I was lucky enough to sit in front of a container of cockroaches, which I learned, can move up to 50 body lengths per second. I moved along pretty quickly myself after that.

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I ran into the cave-like structure in the center of the exhibit, which is dark and has authentic sound effects of dripping water. I, however, quickly found this section to be the least interesting of the exhibit as I am not that into blind, pale cave creatures. Because there is an abundance of other information throughout the exhibit, I didn’t feel as guilty as I usually do when completely skipping sections of text.

On the other side of the cave I found a subject to which I can relate much more: uncanny eaters. I read about the precise imprint of a Cookiecutter shark on a seal’s side and touch the pseudo talons of a hawk. In another interactive station, I smell the clove perfume of a special orchid, the Aspasia principissa, which uses the scent to attract bees.

I then spot a Wii-like game with no players in front of it and decide to make my move before the kids behind me see it. I follow the simple instructions in front of the two TV screens and step onto the footprints on the floor before one of them. My image immediately appears on the screen in front of me and I’m instructed to move my hands to participate in a clam toss and scallop grab with the object of feeding the mantis shrimp hiding in the corner. After about five minutes, the shrimp is fed and I try to play with the skunk on the next screen but the motion sensor is not working so I move on.

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The last big section unites most of the creatures featured in the exhibit with their ability to survive extenuating circumstances, defying death. The wall shows the lifetimes of many creatures, the longest survivor of the wall being the 9,550 year old Norway spruce. On the wall are many bold questions like: “How is it that lifespans can vary so wildly? And is death truly inevitable? How long can the end be postponed?” At this point, I expect a snap back to reality from the extraordinary and almost fantastical facts I have just learned about these all these creatures. But to my surprise, the questions are answered by more impressive facts about immortal worms that live forever through regeneration. Call me old-fashioned, but I was really pleased that the exhibit had a happy ending.

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As I walk out of the final room, I am once again in the company of oversized tardigrades, this time sending me off. By ending the way it began, the exhibit seems to embody the regeneration to which its text refers. This last corner of the room points out that despite all of these amazing creatures and their survival habits, the tardigrade wins the “ultimate tough guy” title. By “shutting down, lying low, bouncing back and being tiny but tough,” tardigrades are supreme survivors.

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After learning about all these creatures’ crazy survival tactics, I started feeling like we, humans, walking through the exhibit were the weakest of the lot. How can we walk around this planet thinking we’re all that when a tree can live longer than a hundred of our lifetimes? The exhibit features a lot of cross-species comparisons, which definitely allowed me to put facts in perspective, but also made me feel like some species were better or worse than others just based on their physical make-up. Instead of leaving the exhibit feeling discouraged by our species’ clearly inferior physical composition, though, I left thinking that we just need to make our mark on Earth in a different way, perhaps using our biggest asset: intellect.

Alex Barbera is a harsh food critic, addict of Netflix and dog enthusiast from New York City. She is an expert at getting lost and making guacamole.

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