The homely tardigrade, an eight-legged microanimal, may take the prize for the most amazing organism on the planet.
You can boil them. You can freeze them. They can survive for decades without water. They can withstand radiation. They’ve even been sent into the vacuum of space and brought back to life.
“They are the ultimate survivors,” said Mark Siddall, a curator and professor at the American Museum of Natural History. “They are the super animal.”
So tardigrades, fittingly, are the beginning and end pieces of a new exhibit celebrating the diversity of life that opens Saturday at the Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park. “Amazing Species: Life at the Limits” uses oversize models, live organisms, video screens and interactive stations to explore the tenacity of life on Earth.
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“We didn’t want it to be a bunch of top 10 lists of the fastest and the most poisonous and the most this and that,” said Siddall, who was in town to oversee the installation of the exhibit in its first venue outside of the natural history museum in New York. “We wanted to compartmentalize in terms of what organisms do and have to do in order to survive and reproduce, which is basically what life does.”
Along the way, the visitor learns about the black swallower, a fish that can eat other fish larger than itself. And the axolotl, a salamander with bizarre external gills that can regenerate its own spinal column. And the common Norway spruce, whose root system can live for nearly 10,000 years.
Animal abilities and behaviors are examined in categories that include movement, senses, ability to withstand extreme temperatures and altitudes, attack and defense mechanisms, and many others.
Consider the multicolored peacock mantis shrimp, of which the exhibit has live specimens. This crustacean can see in several different directions at once and in 12 different wavelengths, including ultraviolet. It can crack open its prey of clams or crabs with a force that’s basically the equivalent of a bullet.
The exhibit is packed with so much information it ought to come with college credit. But there is no test at the end. One can try to absorb it all or just marvel. There is even a giant model of a Hercules beetle that kids are encouraged to climb upon.
“It’s about the wonder of life, and how do you convey that except by presenting the visitor with an enormous diversity of life,” said Siddall. “Not just what they look like, but what they do and where they live. The only way to do that honestly is by giving them a lot. At the same time, I think we’ve done a good job of arranging things thematically.”
“Amazing Species” is the latest traveling exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History to visit Prairiefire, a $28 million museum that opened in 2014 with a unique affiliation with the New York institution. The exhibit runs through Jan. 17.
Donna Deeds, president of the Museum at Prairiefire, said it allows Kansas City-area visitors to test their imaginations.
“These amazing species are awe-inspiring for what they show us about their determination not only to remain alive in unfathomably severe environments, but to thrive,” she said.
The Museum at Prairiefire:
▪ 5801 W. 135th St.
▪ Is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
▪ Admission is $14 for adults 13 and up and $8 for children older than 3.