Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Evolution is clear at the KU Natural History Museum


    In Lawrence, Kan., on the fifth floor of the Kansas University Natural History Museum, we had an interesting time exploring a series of exhibits about different approaches to understanding various evolutions and how they happen. 

     We approached a mirror that had the images of two life-sized chimpanzees on it and were asked to compare our human characterizes to theirs and then to move to the other side. 

     On the other side were the letters of our DNA and that of chimpanzees, and we were asked to find the differences in the thousands of letters.  To help us they had placed a small figure between those letters that differed.   We found  only five figures showing us that chimps are biologically very close relatives to we humans.

    How sexual selection has shaped the evolution of flies in Hawaii shows that the power of who females chose to mate with is a powerful influence on what happens to a species.

     Male attractiveness has gone in three major subdivisions.  In one division the females preferred  males who have attractive colorful wings. A second group of females were  attracted to the males' songs and a third group favored how the males danced. 

    Given that females choose to pair off with the one who is most attractive to them, each group developed their own somewhat different characteristics.  Eventually it turned out that 30 percent of the males produced  100 percent of the offspring.   

    As the females continue to select males for certain characteristics those characteristics will become more definitive of the species. 

    A number of displays show how two very different species evolved from a common ancestor 55 million years ago. The early mammal was an artiodactyls.   In one direction it went through many forms to end up as a rhinoceros and in the other it evolved into  whales.

Evolution produced some very different animals from the same original

    Since Darwin’s stop at the Galapagos Islands the islands have continued to serve as a laboratory to study the effects of environment on evolution.  In this case they show the effect of rainfall on plants on one of the islands and how this results in the nature of the beaks of the finches.

     Wet years the finches with the broad strong beak survive at a higher rate, while in years of drought the smaller thin beaked finch offspring survive.

    A more complex evolution is coevolution where a number of different species relied on each other for survival.  One interactive display shows how farming ants, fungus crop, a crop pest and bacteria have all evolved together, each relying on the other for existence..

    The museum has an impressive collection from all ages of the world’s history, but we took special interest in the remains of animals that existed in Kansas around 14,000 years ago before they disappeared from history. 

Two early camels face a big toothed cat

    Some of the remains on display were from the La Brea tar pits in California:  the dire wolf, the saber tooth, and ground sloth.    At other displays we found: a giant buffalo, short legged rhino, middle horse, small camel, and a mastodon.

    The day we were there we  watched groups of children enjoying some of the interaction displays. We were impressed with the level of education that this museum provides and felt that more students around the country should have the opportunity to learn from exhibits such as these. 

    We expect that in the future museums of this quality will be put into a 3D experience so students can cruise the displays from their class rooms. 

    We suspect with the progress being made in media that this may not be too long in the future.

A short legged rhino roamed the Ozarks thousands of years ago

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