Mortal Remains

September 2, 2014

passenger pigeon

Mortal Remains: Animals That Have Perished From the Face of the Earth in Recent Times. It’s a fitting name for a new Academy exhibit that showcases the museum’s incredible collection and raises awareness about species extinction. The exhibit opened this week in conjunction with the 100-year anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, a bird hunted from a population of billions to zero in less than a century.

Housed in the Academy’s Library Gallery, Mortal Remains is open to the public weekday afternoons through Oct. 15. It features specimens of extinct species from virtually every Academy collection – from Malacology to Mammalogy, from Botany to Entomology, from Ichthyology to Ornithology.

Mortal Remains displays animals, birds and plants that have gone extinct relatively recently, many since the Academy’s beginning in 1812, to highlight the biodiversity crisis we’re in right now, while anchoring to the centenary of the passenger pigeon’s demise,” says Entomology Curatorial Assistant and Mortal Remains Curator Greg Cowper. “The exhibit draws from the Academy’s extensive collection of some 18 million specimens, one of the best natural history collections in the Americas.”

extinction exhibit
Shown above: Cape warthog, passenger pigeon, St. Croix racer

Among the specimens on display are the Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Falkland Islands wolf (Dusicyon australis), ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis),  heath hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido), silver trout (Salvelinus agassizii), Nuttall’s mudflower (Micranthemum micranthemoides), Hawaiian land snails (Achatinella spp.), and Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus).

Once so abundant in North America that a passing flock could block out the sun for days and the weight of resting birds could break a tree bough, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was killed off throughout the 19th century. With historical reports of a flock numbering 3 to 5 billon pigeons in the mid-1800s, one roosting area could span almost 40 Manhattan islands. The last pigeon, named Martha Washington and kept in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo, died Sept. 1, 1914. Meanwhile, some scientists are making headlines with work to possibly bring back the bird; using passenger pigeon DNA to create a new genome, cloning is a real possibility.

“There are some scientists who have the power to do that,” Cowper says. “But should they?” Interestingly, DNA for cloning projects comes from museum collections like the Academy’s, making the collection here and those like it that much more valuable. In the collection are a number of passenger pigeon skins, and in the public museum is a classic 1947 diorama of passenger pigeons depicted in a leafy forest background.

“On any day, museum visitors can come up to the third floor and see dioramas of the great auk—the last of which were slaughtered near Iceland in 1844—Labrador duck, Eskimo curlew—gone by the 1960s—and the passenger pigeon,” Cowper says. “There’re also paintings of other extinct birds, including New Zealand’s 12-foot-tall moa and the dodo.” The Academy’s 19th century cast of a dodo skull will be in the exhibit.

Educating the public about natural history and science is fundamental to the Academy’s mission, and the issues of extinction and conservation are no exception. “We’re losing our animals and plants faster than scientists can understand and describe what lives on the planet, and that’s mind blowing,” Cowper says.

Besides extinction, Mortal Remains also will highlight successes. Rediscovered species considered extinct and species on the brink of extinction saved through careful conservation practices are examples.

While you’re in the Library, ask about the new free audio tour that will guide you through some of the treasures on view.
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