Natural History Museum puts collection of oddities on display

From left, Gail Sherron, Iris Sherron, 5, and Carly Armbrister, 4, all of Baldwin City, take a closer look at a selection of lichens Sunday during the Kansas University Natural History Museum's Museum

The crowd of small children hovered over the tank, staring at the dead fish floating before them and giving off a faint fishy smell.

“Pretty big fish,” 10-year-old Wyatt Slavin said, summing up the sight. “I wouldn’t want it chasing after me, that’s for sure.”

For many, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime close-up view of the endangered coelacanth, the prehistoric fish that’s changed very little in its millions of years on Earth.

“There’s only about 230 in scientific collections around the world,” said Andy Bentley, collection manager of fishes at Kansas University’s Natural History Museum.

The rare coelacanth was one of dozens of wild and wonderful specimens on display Sunday at the museum. Steady crowds poured into Dyche Hall for the one-day exhibit “What on Earth? Museum Oddities.”

They took in fanged frogs, deep-ocean fish, ammonites – an extinct mollusk – and native Kansas mussels.

Wendy Eash, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, stood behind the table displaying mussels and explained how they, like several of the specimens on display Sunday that are not extinct, live a fragile existence.

“A lot of the mussels here are endangered or threatened or in need of conservation,” she said. “They were heavily harvested in the 1900s to make buttons out of. … Populations are really low now.”

The coelacanths also are endangered. They live in the waters off the coast of Africa and die after they’re caught by fishermen who seek other fish.

“Very small populations, very small habitat, very slow-growing, very slow reproducing -makes for a species that is very, very endangered and in threat of becoming extinct,” Bentley said.

Sunday’s crowds also saw colorful varieties of lichen and the long wing of a wandering albatross, the seabird that has a unique method of grocery shopping.

“They can wander around the globe in search of food,” said Mike Andersen, a KU graduate student in ornithology. “They’ll go around the globe in several days’ time to bring food back. They’ll come back to their young who are raised on islands and they’ll actually regurgitate that food, fish and squid and so forth.”

Andersen, who sat at the table behind the albatross, said he saw many wide eyes in the crowd.

“Most people say, ‘I’ve never seen an albatross,'” he said. “They’ve heard of them, but they just don’t know how big they are.”