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McMaster helps Science Centre dive deep into the Ice Age

McMaster’s Hendrik Poinar has helped the Ontario Science Centre open a new exhibition on the woolly mammoth.

Feb 17, 2016

The director of the University’s Ancient DNA Centre took part in a special panel and Q and A session last week, launching Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age.

Through hands-on displays, the exhibition shows how researchers use cutting-edge science to excavate and analyze tusks, teeth, skin, hair and stomach contents to learn more about these creatures, uncovering and connecting the factors that contributed to their evolution and extinction.

Modern-day research and genomics techniques are showcased through programs and workshops in collaboration with McMaster and Ontario Genomics.

Mammoths and mastodons – great beasts weighing as much as eight tons and bearing tusks up to five-metres-long – existed for millions of years. But despite their size and ability to adapt to different habitats, these early cousins of the elephant eventually disappeared, leaving an abundant fossil record.

“The Ice Age world was, geologically speaking, just a moment ago. Here in Ontario, we are living on deposits sculpted and left behind by glaciers. These deposits contain buried fossils of a fascinating array of extinct animals,” said Poinar. “My graduate students are analyzing the DNA of these animal remains in order to better understand who was here when and why many of them went extinct synchronously.”

Read: Researchers map genomes of woolly mammoths, raising possibility of bringing them back

Mammoths and Mastodons gives visitors an opportunity to delve deeper into the Ice Age. The exhibition shows environments that awe and amaze through large-scale projections, walk-through dioramas and virtual experiences. The exhibition features large, fleshed-out creatures and skeletons that visitors can touch and examine up close.

Another highlight is a replica of Lyuba, the remarkably well-preserved, 42,000-year-old baby mammoth found in 2007 by a Siberian reindeer herder and two of his sons. Also showcased are rare and evocative objects including some of the oldest art in existence, huge skulls and tusks, weird and wonderful mammoth relatives – including dwarf mammoths – and mastodon bones.

“It’s a unique partnership that allows us to share McMaster discoveries and knowledge with the public,” says Allison Sekuler, McMaster’s interim vice-president of research. “Not only does it give us an opportunity to showcase our world-class research in anthropology, but it builds excitement for science and the social sciences in general, engaging the 100,000 plus visitors that the exhibit will attract. In terms of outreach, it doesn’t get much better than this.”

The exhibition explores not only how these Ice Age creatures lived, forming herds similar in social structure to those of modern elephants, but also how they died and went extinct. It explores the roles played by climate change, human predation and other factors.

“These animals were victims of the extinction process that threatens animals we know today – animals we would hate to lose,” said Daniel C. Fisher, lead curator of the exhibition and professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan. “Mammoths and Mastodons demonstrates how we can learn what these animals were like using cutting-edge science to piece together the past and perhaps redirect processes now poised to affect our future.”

Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age runs through April 24, 2016. The exhibition and related programs are included with general admission.

This exhibition was created by The Field Museum, Chicago.