Wild things! Saving nature for the future

You can almost hear the screech as the life-like model of a bald eagle approaches a tree-top twist of branches in the main gallery at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. This majestic bird, so representative of the success of environmental activism, is a central figure in the museum’s newest exhibit, “Gifts to Our Grandchildren.”
The exhibit calls attention to endangered and threatened species around the world, with special emphasis on plants and animals native to Virginia. One local star of the show is the James River spinymussel, an unassuming mollusk that normally hangs out in the sand at the bottom of rivers, filtering toxins from the water. The display shows how, as more and more land is cleared for housing developments and agriculture, silt from runoff can build up and suffocate this sedentary shellfish. Populations of this beneficial mussel are so low that it is now endangered.
Other interactive activities give kids the chance to play as they learn about the processes that lead to extinction. Two endangered species games, for example, help players see that even hiking and playing on the beach can be destructive to the habitats of species such as the Heller’s blazing star or the loggerhead sea turtle.
Soft stuffed puppets of the giant panda, canebrake rattlesnake, whooping crane, humpback whale, and other animals help kids learn about where these creatures live, what they eat, and why their numbers are dwindling. Similarly, an interactive electronic display, a giant floor puzzle, and a wall with rotating images of plants and animals describe the worrisome circumstances of these species.
“Wow, it’s humongous!” exclaimed one young visitor gaping in awe at the empty shell of a green sea turtle. It’s the sort of response program directors at the museum hope will inspire folks to do what needs to be done to keep these threatened and endangered species around for our grandchildren.

Gifts to Our Grandchildren is on display at the Virginia Museum of Natural History at UVA now through December 12. Museum hours are 10am-4pm Monday through Thursday, and admission is free. Groups can arrange a tour by calling 982-4605. www.virginia.edu/~vmnh-uva