A tropical fish swims in the coral reef aquarium.
When you visit a museum you expect to see collections of items well past their prime: mummified corpses from the tombs of Egyptian rulers, dinosaur teeth that ripped prey to shreds millions of years ago, a gaping hole in the back of a dusty skull left over from the Battle of Thermopylae—relics of things that were once alive but are now most vibrant in our imaginations and memories.
The “Life In Crisis: Schad Gallery of Biodiversity” exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, however, teems with life, though it also warns that much of this life may not be around for long. Opened last May, the ten thousand-square-foot interactive gallery takes a look at the wide variety of species on Earth, featuring more than two thousand mounted and living specimens (including a leaf-cutter ant colony, and an aquarium of live tropical fish and invertebrates indigenous to coral reefs) from seven different ecosystems around the world.
A lion lounges on the savannah.
“We’ve got three themes: Life is diverse, life is inter-related, and life is at risk,” explains Dr. Douglas Currie, senior curator of entomology at the museum. The exhibition takes on particular urgency as habitat destruction increases and endangers an ever-growing number of creatures. “No species is an island unto itself,” Currie goes on. “If something happens to a species, there’s typically a cascading effect of things that will go down with it… As the human footprint continues to expand, it puts pressure on organisms that share the planet with us.”
A king cobra.
What this means is that death is, of necessity, also front-and-centre at the gallery. The exhibition includes mounted examples of both endangered and extinct species, among them a great auk, a skeleton of the dodo bird, a wolverine, and a snow leopard. Currie says scientists estimate an average of three species—some discovered and some not—disappear every hour, due in large measure to human influence. (Scientists have discovered and named less than two million out of an estimated five to fifty million species on the planet.)
Marine ecosystems, for example, are particularly vulnerable. One panel explains how shark populations are drastically depleted due to overfishing, which causes a population explosion of skates and rays, the sharks’ prey. Numbers of oysters and scallops, the primary food source for skates and rays, decline in turn. The growing population of rays also tears up eel beds in search of shellfish.
In all, a dire warning for humanity to clean up its act, or bear witness to the largest mass extinction since dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
“Extinctions have happened in Earth’s history—five to be exact—the last one being the end of the age of the dinosaur,” Currie says. “But we’re currently on the cusp of a sixth major extinction event, almost certainly due to the growing human footprint.”
All photos by Brian Towie/Torontoist.