Perhaps the most repeated words you’ll see in the new Natural History Museum exhibition Life in the Dark are ‘Please touch’. They can be found next to a taxidermy fox when you first enter the exhibition, alongside other taxidermy animals such as the European rabbit, and on models of strange creatures such as the vampire squids or remipedes (a class of insect-like crustaceans only discovered in the 1980s). While touch is a lesser sense for us sight-centric humans, it’s the primary way of understanding the world for many creatures. For example, whiskers on the dormouse, or the extremely strange nose of the truly bizarre star-nosed mole, means these animals can cope without the light, instead feeling their way through the darkness.
Of course, as the exhibition makes very clear, touch is just one of the senses embraced by animals who opt to inhabit ecosystems devoid of light, or simply to operate once the sun has slipped below the horizon. Smell is another, important for more animals than you might think, including koalas, little spotted kiwis, large flying foxes (the world’s largest bat) and pale-throated sloths, which are all well-adapted to navigate using distinctive pheromones. Interactive smell emitters enable visitors to briefly dip into the aromatic world these and other creatures inhabit. Equally, supremely sensitive hearing such as barn owls and geckos allows them to comfortably operate through the night.
It’s an immersive experience from the moment you first enter the exhibition. Silhouetted forest scenes are projected onto one wall, mirroring the different phases of dusk and carrying us gradually into the night. Immediately, the environment becomes dark and shadowy. Trees in the middle of the room with shadows of branches from above give the feeling of an authentic forest at night, while the accompanying sounds of insects chirping, frogs croaking, owls hooting and other mysterious noises make your imagination run wild.
Here we explore the mix of animals whose enhanced eyesight gives them powerful night vision (thanks to a preference for eyes with considerable rods over cones, meaning they see less colour than humans but have the ability to see the world in much more detail). We may be familiar with nocturnal animals such as foxes, badgers and tawny owls, but what about Madagascar’s freaky long-fingered aye-aye, the Amazonian owl monkey, the net-casting spider, or New Zealand’s reptilian tuatara? While the exhibition leans far less on historical specimens than many past Natural History Museum showings – with considerable interactivity and media on display as well – seeing the museum’s archived specimens within this context does help grasp what these animals are really like.
Of course, there are environments on Earth where darkness persists beyond simply during the night. The sensory deprivation of caves, for example, the darkest habitats on the planet, are a prime location for exploring a natural world without light and are home to many animals with a variety of tricks to help them get their bearings and find food. Beyond the cleverly frantic ‘bat cave’ that introduces us to how they and other animals use echolocation to make sense of the chaotic world around them, we meet the African dwarf crocodiles from Gabon (the only known crocodiles to inhabit cave systems) and the Mexican blind cave fish, making it possible to see what marine life without any eyes looks like in the flesh. We’re even invited to smell musty bat guano, or view ourselves in infrared (as the Puerto Rican cave boa would do), to get a sense of what life in such subterranean environments would be like.
Similarly, the deep ocean provides multiple opportunities to learn about the critters that swim and scurry around in the depths where sunlight cannot reach (roughly one kilometre down). We’re invited to accompany researchers a deep-sea dive (via film) to find the dumbo octopus, frogfish, and rabbit fish, among others, while a great wall display illustrates how deep the ‘deep ocean’ actually is, relative to, say, the wreck of the Titanic, the Mariana Trench, or the summit of Mount Everest.
Finally, it’s time to delve into bioluminescence. Even in the very deep ocean most fish have eyes, since light can be used for a variety for purposes such as attracting or stunning food, avoiding predators with camouflage, or for finding mates (an estimated 90 per cent of creatures at these depths make their own light). Thousands of tiny points of light create a concentrated mass of bioluminescence around the visitor, to illustrate how krill, siphonophores, sea lilies, shrimp and many other forms of deep marine life are likely to appear when they operate at these depths. Imagining life in the dark might feel like an impossibility for many people, but through this exhibition visitors can at least try and understand how many of our furry, feathered and scaly friends manage it all through their lives.
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