If your kids like seeing the giraffes and elephants at the zoo, just wait until they meet Macrauchenia, a hybrid of the two, with a little bit of camel thrown in. The now-extinct South American creature, with a giraffe-like neck and an elephantine trunk, is just one of the wacky animals that are part of the Field Museum's new Extreme Mammals exhibit, opening Friday.
In every corner of the new exhibit, you'll see something that makes you say "wow." Whether it's the massive Indricotherium guarding the entrance or a walking whale, there's something fascinating, wild, and yes, extreme, to discover.
The exhibit touches on a wide range of factors that might be considered extreme, whether size (one toe bone on display looks roughly the size of a child's whole arm), exterior traits like teeth (elephants once had something called a shovel tusker) and brains (is bigger really better?), not to mention ambulation and climate adaptations.
One particularly interesting section has kids comparing humans to other mammals to see if we're really as normal as we might think.
Everything is highly interactive, with videos and hands-on elements, such as a glyptodont shell that kids can climb inside, and poses lots of questions to get kids thinking. Plus, between the life-like models, reconstructions and fossils, there's something new and intriguing to see everywhere you look. I heard kids repeatedly say things like "cool" and "weird" as they made their way through the exhibit.
Even adults can learn something new. I was most fascinated by the section dedicated to reproduction, especially since I had a vague memory that all mammals give birth to live young. But in fact, monotremes, like the platypus, lay eggs and eventually nurse their babies by secreting milk onto their skin or fur.
Extreme Mammals isn't just about being amazed at animals that used to exist. The end of the exhibit focuses on extinction and the species that are most at-risk today, as well as the discovery of new mammals that still happens in the 21st century.
But regardless of which part of the exhibit most piques your interest, there's little doubt that you'll come away at least a bit in awe of our vast range of crazy mammal cousins.
Just one caution: The next time you're at the zoo, that giraffe and elephant might not seem quite so extreme.
Elizabeth Diffin is the associate editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.