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Science Museum’s new exhibit shows extinction isn’t just a thing of the past

To say humans are making a mess out of the natural world is a colossal understatement.

“If you look at a clock, we’re the last split second” in the history of the universe, said David Cinquino, exhibits director at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Yet, in so little time, changes seen in sea levels, hot and cold temperatures and greenhouse gases are now leading scientists to draw parallels to the five mass extinctions the world experienced in 500 million years, Cinquino said.

The world is also experiencing the most rapid decline of animals since dinosaurs went extinct.

The changes have led many scientists to conclude that the Earth could be in a period of the sixth mass extinction, Cinquino said.

It’s against that backdrop that the museum has opened “Rethink Extinct,” its sixth new permanent exhibit gallery since 2012. It is intended to make people aware that significant extinction is underway, and not just a thing of the past.

The family-friendly presentation examines history going back to the Paleozoic era, 542 million years ago, and the leading causes of extinction. There are interactive displays, including ground-penetrating radar to signal ground disturbances where a hadrosaur – a duck-billed dinosaur – is partially buried, helping understand how modern dinosaur digs are done.

There are also old museum favorites, such as the triceratops skeleton, remnants of a mastodon found in Byron, Genesee County, and a 1933 diorama created by Henri Marchand and his sons George and Paul.

The vivid underwater diorama – created in wax and not seen publicly since the 1990s – depicts a fragile, coral reef ecosystem that now – unlike when the diorama was created in 1933 – is under siege from pollution, destructive fishing practices and climate change.

A text panel says 45 percent of the world’s coral reefs remain healthy.

A display shows how human exploitation contributes to the threatened or endangered status for animal species. A leopard fur coat and purse, sea turtle shoes, a caiman purse, ivory bracelets and trinket boxes, and tiger bone tincture are just some of the products that have ruthlessly driven this lethal demand.

To counteract that, the exhibit raises the importance of using nature in sustainable ways.

“We’re not trying to be preachy, we’re just trying to raise the level of consciousness about what we do and how that impacts the world around us,” Cinquino said. “We’re trying to help people to understand there are choices in the way we lead our lives and in the things that we do that could help.”

The exhibit points out that 45 percent of the extinction threats are due to habitat change or loss, and 37 percent due to hunting, fishing and poaching. By contrast, 7 percent is attributed to climate change, though that number is expected to rise in coming years.

“There are elements in your cellphone that are mined out of the fields where gorillas live in the mountains of Africa. When they mine for that element, you’re disturbing that habitat. That is the kind of thing we want people to think about,” Cinquino said.

The exhibit also shows how disease can run rampant through an already-threatened population.

Ebola has killed one-third of the wild gorilla and chimpanzee populations. Some 95 percent of the gorillas who get Ebola die – almost double the rate of humans.

“Rethink Extinct” was created and designed by the museum staff with Kraemer Design & Production of Cincinnati.

Two more permanent interactive exhibits are planned for the museum. A new biodiversity exhibit is slated to open in October, and an aerospace exhibit will open by summer 2016, alongside the restoration and reopening of the museum’s rooftop observatory.