Visit the prairie: See the animals, search for plants

When Thomas Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to lead the exploration of the new western territory, one of his three main objectives was scientific documentation of new plant and animal species. A new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Natural History at UVA offers visitors a chance to look through the eyes of these natural history pioneers at the flora and fauna Lewis and Clark discovered.
Adventurers who set out to explore this exhibit are led along the route taken by the Corps of Discovery to survey the habitats of the Missouri River, the northern Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific coast.
Animals dominate these displays. In one corner, a grizzly bear, its teeth bared and claws extended, reaches up on hind legs to a height of more than eight feet. Taxidermied specimens of tamer beasts include a white tailed jackrabbit, prairie dog, big horned sheep, beaver, and many more.
The Prairie Room is especially engaging. Those who have never seen a real bison up close may be startled by the size of the stuffed head mounted at eye-level. The head of a pronghorn, a unique species of mammal similar to deer and sheep, peers down from the opposite wall, while a baby bison lounges on the floor next to an image of its mamma. A bison skin is draped over a nearby table next to hoofs, horns, and other objects and a sign that says, “Please touch.”
More touchables are available in the Discovery Room, where kids can get their hands on a variety of pelts, claws, antlers, and other beastly body parts. Puzzles, games, and a puppet theater (featuring Bear, Bald Eagle, and Lewis’s dog, Seaman) help young explorers pick up a few facts along the way. Curious fingers will not want to miss the challenge in the Mystery Box.
Unfortunately, the flora in this exhibit are hard to find. Plants are represented in four eight-foot color murals painted by university students. While the murals are aesthetically beautiful, rather than portraying flowers in natural settings, the images are more like those in a field guide: clumped together on a panel identified by numbers that match a list of botanical and common names (no other info) on a sign off to the side. The only living specimens are some eastern wild ginger roots embedded in a gardener’s flat, waiting to grow. A few pressed leaf samples can also be found.
Still, exploring the Flora and Fauna of the Lewis & Clark Expedition is a very worthwhile adventure… one that can last all year.

Natural History Pioneers: The Flora and Fauna of the Lewis & Clark Expedition is on display at the Virginia Museum of Natural History at UVA through 2003. Hours are Monday through Thursday 10am-4pm. Admission and parking are free. 104 Emmet St. 982-4605. www.virginia.edu/vmnh-uva.