Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Life in the Dark at the Natural History Museum

Exploring bioluminescence at the Natural History Museum, London Exploring bioluminescence at the Natural History Museum, London Trustees of the Natural History Museum
12 Jul
2018
It’s hard to imagine life without the visual world upfront and centre. But, as the new exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London shows, there is a wide variety of fauna that are entirely comfortable operating in the darkness

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.

Star Nosed MoleA star-nosed mole (Image: Trustees of the Natural History Museum)

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.

rabbitVisitors to the exhibition are encouraged to touch many of the exhibits (Image: Trustees of the Natural History Museum)

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.

Life in the Dark is on display at the Natural History Museum, London from 13 July 2018 until 6 January 2019. Adult tickets £11.50, concessions £7.50, children (16 and under) go free. For more information visit nhm.ac.uk/visit/exhibitions/life-in-the-dark.html

red line

NEVER MISS A STORY

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our free weekly newsletter!

red line

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...

Exhibitions

Four new galleries at Royal Museums Greenwich explore Britain’s maritime…

Books

by John Foot • Bloomsbury • £25 (hardback)

Books

by Deborah Baker • Chatto & Windus • £25 (hardback)

Books

By Lucy Seigle • Trapexe • £12.99/£6.99 (hardback/eBook)

Books

by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin • Pelican • £8.99 (paperback)

Books

by Christoph Baumer • IB Tauris • £30 (hardback)

Books

by Charles Lane • River Books • £40 (hardback)

Books

by Graham Hoyland• William Collins • £20 (hardback)

Books

by Dr Lucy Jones• Doubleday Books • £19.99 (hardback)

Books

by Daniel Pinchbeck• Watkins • £9.99 (paperback)

Books

by Jasper Winn • Profile Books • £16.99 (hardback)

Books

by Nathan H Lents • Weidenfeld & Nicolson • £16.99…

Films

This hard-hitting marine conservation film – part of the Ocean…

Films

Here are the newest non-fiction offerings to satisfy that craving…

Exhibitions

The Society’s Earth Photo exhibition captures the planet’s natural riches…

Books

by Alanna Mitchell • Oneworld • £16.99 (hardback)

Books

by Christopher J Preston • The MIT Press • £20.95…

Books

by Jamal Mahjoub • Bloomsbury • £25 (hardback)

Books

by Joanna Kafarowski • Dundurn Press • 15.99 (hardback)

Books

by Peter Dauvergne • Polity Books • £9.99 (paperback)