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A thrill ride for the mind
The permanent exhibits at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville bring you closer to what and who once roamed here, including saber-tooth cats, a 9-foot-tall bird and several small Indian tribes.
By LOGAN NEILL
Published June 22, 2007
[Florida Museum of Natural History]
The Florida Museum of Natural History's "Hall of Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land" permanent exhibition features a 15-foot-tall ground sloth that was discovered near Newberry in western Alachua County.
GAINESVILLE - Face it. Mickey and Shamu have a cornered market when it comes to luring visitors to the Sunshine State. The sad fact is that even when folks finally do settle here, they often ignore some of Florida's great treasures.
The Florida Museum of Natural History is one of them. Though devoid of heart-pounding roller coasters, leaping killer whales and magic castles, the museum offers something a little deeper - a delightful, fascinating and inexpensive cerebral thrill ride - even if science wasn't your favorite subject.
On the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville, this is not your typical repository of old artifacts. Rather, the museum beckons visitors to put their thinking caps on and enjoy an interactive experience exploring Florida's prehistoric origins, early human inhabitants and its environmental beauty.
Kids will love it because it's fun. Parents will like it because it's also educational but you don't have to tell that to the kids. Here is a thumbnail sketch of the major permanent exhibits. Take a moment to get acquainted with one of Florida's more substantive attractions.
Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life & Land
For much of its 65-million years, Florida was covered with water, making it a collection point for all sorts of sea life. Though dinosaurs roamed the entire planet, many of the four-legged and finned creatures that settled in Florida were quite unique to the region.
The exhibit highlights some of the more exotic species, including saber-tooth cats, bearlike creatures and a prehistoric bird dubbed the Terror Bird, which stood at nearly 9 feet tall.
Dramatic lighting, sound effects and other interactive features are a highlight here. Touch screens offer in-depth narratives, and computer globes enable visitors to pinpoint the massive changes that affected the region's vast biological and physical development.
One feature includes a display of 3-D replicas that correspond to the skeletal creatures on display. It's a neat way for visitors to get a visualization of what the animal looked like in the wild.
Most impressive is the fossil skeleton of a giant ground sloth dating 2.2-million years. Interestingly, it was discovered intact several years ago in a nearby limestone quarry by a UF geology student.
Northwest Florida: Waterways and Wildlife
Although few of us will ever willingly traipse through a rough wooded hammock or marsh bog, this exhibit will give you a pretty good taste for what it's like. Inside, you can experience wilderness environments such as a sand hill prairie, a tidal marsh, even a limestone cave, all of which are found in Florida's Panhandle.
The sights and sounds will almost make you want to reach for your can of bug repellent. Relax. Everything here is completely artificial. But it sure looks real. From multilayered stalagmites that appear as if they took thousands of years to form to the 40, 000 hand-stitched silk leaves adorning towering beech trees, the detail is mind-boggling.
Interactive features include an expanse of caves and crannies, complete with limestone formations. A fallen tree trunk has removable bark sections under which millipedes and beetles (fake, of course) can be seen. Nearby, a marsh scene allows one to listen to the calls of hawks, sand hill cranes and other birds and watch as a summer time thunderstorm forms in the distance.
South Florida: People & Environments
Long before white settlers arrived, Florida was inhabited by numerous small Indian tribes whose enclaves stretched from Key Largo to the Panhandle. Among the coastal dwellers were the Calusa, a rich, powerful and artistic society that was advanced enough to develop towns and engineered canals and to make the most of the rich natural resources surrounding them.
This exhibit attempts to bring the visitor closer to an indigenous tribe that is still mostly a mystery to Floridians.
In addition to displays of pottery, tools and other artifacts, the creators have taken painstaking steps to re-create an authentic Calusa village, right down to a 30-foot-high midden (refuse) mound.
The life-size figures representing the tribe's men and women are finely detailed.
Visitors can examine the legacy of the tribe through rare artifacts. One of the most precious is a 1, 000-year-old hand-carved wooden panel with a painting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, now believed to be extinct.
Butterfly Rainforest: Where Science Takes Flight
There is little question why this is the museum's most popular exhibit. Once you step through the doors into the terrace, you are surrounded by some of nature's most elegant beauty. Tropical plants in full bloom are irresistible magnets for the 2, 000 or so butterflies that inhabit the four-story vivarium.
Even if you're not particularly fond of flying critters, it's hard to not be wowed by the sight of nearly 60 species of swallowtails, monarchs and tree nymphs.
The exhibit does charge a fee for entrance, but you will find it's well worth it. While you're there, be sure to check out the rest of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, a complex dedicated to research and preservation of butterflies and moths from around the globe. The "Wall of Wings" features one of the largest public displays of lepidoptera specimens.
It's worth noting that the museum also hosts a number of temporary exhibits. The newly opened "Megalodon" exhibit examines the prehistoric shark, which grew to more than 60 feet in length and vanished 2-million years ago. The exhibit will run through Jan. 8.
Where: SW 34th Street and Hull Road, Gainesville. From Interstate 75, take Exit 384, then head a mile east on State Road 24 (Archer Road). Turn north (left) on State Road 121 (SW 34th Street). Travel three-quarters of a mile to the third traffic signal. Turn east (right) on Hull Road. The entrance to the University of Florida Cultural Plaza is on the south (right) side of Hull Road.
Hours: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. (Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas)
Cost: Museum admission is free, but donations are accepted. Admission to the Butterfly Rainforest is $8.50 for adults, $6.50 for seniors and students 13 and older, and $4.50 for children 3 to 12. Children younger than 3 get in free
Information: Call (352) 846-2000 or visit www.flmnh.ufl.edu.