Permian Monsters: Life Before the Dinosaurs

andrew kruse-ross | the neville now | oct. 2017

The Neville's newest exhibit, Permian Monsters: Life Before Dinosaurs, takes visitors back in time — way back — roughly 299 million years into the past to a great crossroads in Earth's history: the Permian Period.

“We're at the crossroads of that underwater world moving into an amphibian and then into reptile-looking creatures," says Beth Lemke, the Neville's executive director. “It's where we start to see the biggest plant eaters, the biggest meat eaters; we're shifting from that underwater realm to the land."

The Permian Period was the final period of the Paleozoic. Imagine a time when the world's landmasses have formed one great supercontinent, Pangea, and in doing so changed the face of the globe forever. It is during this time that the great mountain ranges we know today are forming: the Urals, Alps, Appalachians and the Rockies.

It's a time of firsts and gives us history's first saber-toothed carnivores, the decline of the amphibians and led to the rise of the Amniotes: a group that includes reptiles, birds and mammals. Plant life begins to shift and early seed-producing conifers appear, including the first Ginkgo trees; giant dragonflies roam the skies and large sail-backed lizards roam the land.

It's also a time of great death. The Permian Period ends with the largest mass extinction in the planet's history, resulting in as much as a 98 percent loss of all sea life and a 70 percent loss of terrestrial life. For years scientists were perplexed as to a cause, but it seems a familiar phenomenon, global warming, is primarily to blame.

The Great Dying, as it is called, would close the chapter on one of Earth's great periods and open the door on another. For the few survivors of this period would become the precursors of Earth's inhabitants of the future and pave the way for the great dinosaurs and Earth's first true mammals.

This amazing time period is brought to life via life-size models, fossilized skeletons, period-true artist renderings and even animatronic dinosaurs.

“I'm a big believer in hands-on," says Lemke. “A lot of times, traditional museums were very hands-off, but sometimes to understand what you're looking at you have to feel it."

This belief in a hands-on approach is highlighted by the inclusion of four dig pits that allow younger visitors to uncover fossilized items in a simulated paleontological dig, as well as several digital interactive learning stations — even some of the exhibit's artist-grade fossil castings are subject to tangible inspection.

The exhibit, which was the brainchild of Tasmania's Peter Norton, has been a hit with Oceanic visitors for years and attracted more than 56,000 visitors while on display at Australia's Queen Victoria Museum alone, but it is a relative newcomer to North American audiences.

Green Bay is only the third U.S. city to host the exhibit, and the second stop on the exhibit's current U.S. tour, which runs at the Neville through January 28. For Lemke, this exhibit is very much by public demand.

“Back in 2015, during our 100th anniversary, we did a member and community stakeholder survey and said, we really need to know, from a temporary gallery, what you [the community] would like to see and dinosaurs, in general, were a top ten."

Permian Monsters, paired with the Neville's other current exhibits, Estamos Aqui: Celebrating Latino Identity in Northeast Wisconsin and NEON: Darkness Electrified makes the fall and winter of 2017 a great time to visit the museum.

“Partnered with NEON, it gives us a nice blend of really strong history, science and art," says Lemke. “I'm really pleased. Every once in a while you get this sweet spot in the exhibit grid … If there's a time to visit us, this is it."

Permian Monsters is open to the public now through Jan. 28, 2018. Admission is included in the museum's general admission. Many placards in this exhibit are presented in both English and Spanish. For more information visit nevillepublicmuseum.org.

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