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Mammoth attractions, undersea treasure at Museum of Science

Have you ever wondered how it would feel to have a trunk like a woolly mammoth? Or to pick up a gold coin from the sea floor with a remote-controlled robotic arm?

Well, your family can find out this fall by grabbing a joystick at the Museum of Science, where two traveling exhibits will give you a look back in time with “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age” and deep undersea in “Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure.”

A life-size replica of the 8-ton remotely operated undersea vehicle Zeus will be on display in the “Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure” exhibit at the Museum of Science.

Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc.

A life-size replica of the 8-ton remotely operated undersea vehicle Zeus will be on display in the “Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure” exhibit at the Museum of Science.

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Also, there is real mammoth poop.

“Mammoths and Mastodons,” opening Oct. 7, takes us back 10,000 to 20,000 years when these giant creatures roamed North America and were hunted by early man. The centerpieces of the exhibit include full-size replicas of Ice Age creatures, including a 12-foot-tall mammoth, a large bear, and a saber-tooth cat.

“We’ve got a lot of exhibitry that’s really evocative of that time, like large-scale projections so you can see what the environment was like,” said Hilary Hansen Sanders, traveling exhibitions manager for the Field Museum in Chicago, which created the show.

“I think one of the things kids will like the most is an interactive where you essentially get to walk into a [virtual] cave and learn about the artwork, the cave paintings that early humans were doing at the time,” Sanders said. “Through a Wii controller you’re able to explore these caves and learn more about these animals and how people had a relationship with them.”

The interactive highlight may be the station where two visitors can use joysticks to control trunks like a mammoth’s or an elephant’s. “You are able to see how many muscles are used to do such seemingly small tasks as plucking a leaf off a branch,” she said.

The ooohs and aaahs may come fastest, though, when kids meet Lyuba, a detailed replica of a female mammoth calf discovered in the permafrost by a Siberian reindeer herder and his sons in 2007.

The size of a large dog, Lyuba — named for the herder’s wife — was apparently preserved by bacteria after death and then lay frozen for thousands of years. “She’s got eyelashes and fur — not a lot of fur, because she was a baby — but fur and a little trunk,” said Sanders. “So you get a good sense of what she looked like when she was alive.”

Lyuba was studied by the International Mammoth Committee, a scientific consortium, and permanently preserved. She belongs to the Shemanovskiy Museum and Exhibition Center in Yamal, Russia, which loaned her to the Field Museum for about the first year of the exhibit, then provided the replica. “She actually lives in Russia now,” Sanders said.

It’s not just virtual caves and replica animals, though. Real mammoth and mastodon skulls, tusks, and teeth are on display, many from the collection of Thomas Jefferson. There are also a necklace, figurines, and arrow or spear points from humans of the era.

And then there’s the mammoth poop, found deep in a Utah cave, preserved but not fossilized.

“It wasn’t exposed to the elements, so it didn’t have the chance to break down,” Sanders said. “It looks like horse poop — like grass that’s been chewed together.”

She adds, “Poop is really interesting to scientists” because they can learn a lot about animals’ diets and lifestyle from it.

The exhibit even gets a little indie-music cred from Andrew Bird. The singer-songwriter is a Chicago native and lifelong Field Museum fan, and his six-minute instrumental “You Woke Me Up!” plays in the section of the exhibit focused on present-day elephants and their struggle to avoid the extinction that befell mammoths and mastodons. (Over-hunting and climate change were the culprits, according to the main theories, Sanders said.) Music in other areas of the gallery was composed by Stephen Wilke, based on Bird’s piece.

You’ll also want your gamer skills for part of “Shipwreck! Pirates & Treasure,” opening Sept. 23. The traveling exhibit was organized by Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., a deep-sea salvage company based in Tampa, Fla.

The treasure on hand includes several hundred real artifacts pulled from the bottom of the ocean, primarily from the SS Republic, a Civil War-era sidewheel steamship that was on its way from New York to New Orleans in 1865 when it sank in a hurricane, about 100 miles off the Georgia coast. In addition to more than 51,000 gold and silver coins, the ship was carrying a wide variety of consumer goods that are represented in the exhibit, including bottles, ceramics, and glassware.

Also on display is a full-size model of the 8-ton Zeus, the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) launched from the Odyssey Explorer ship to bring back artifacts from thousands of feet below the surface.

On an Odyssey exploration, president Mark Gordon said, “If someone gets wet, there’s been an accident.” Using the Zeus and similar vehicles means the company can explore far beyond human divers’ range — they’re currently at 16,000 feet with one wreck — and stay under for an unlimited amount of time.

A skeleton of an American mastodon in the “Mammoths and Mastodons” exhibit at the Museum of Science.

John Weinstein © 2009 The Field Museum

A skeleton of an American mastodon in the “Mammoths and Mastodons” exhibit at the Museum of Science.

There’s an exhibit station where guests can try to control a real robotic arm like the ones on the Zeus — and just like the real salvage team, you’ll have to do it remotely. There’s a partition between the controller and the arm, and you’ll have to watch on a video monitor as you try to pick up replica coins from the surface of the display.

“Everyone else gets to watch them live and see them move the manipulator arm around and . . . get the suction cup on the coin, get the arm back over the coin pot, and then release suction,” Gordon said. “That’s an exact exercise that our ROV pilots have to be proficient in.”

Both traveling exhibits were chosen in part to offer a full museum experience for visitors while some permanent exhibits, notably the Human Body Connection, are closed for renovation into the new $17.5 million, 10,000-square-foot Hall of Human Life, set to open in late 2013.

“We’re trying to schedule temporary exhibits to fill in some of the voids,” said Larry Ralph, director of education enterprises and temporary exhibits at the museum. “We want to make sure everybody gets their money’s worth when they come to the Museum of Science.”

MAMMOTHS AND MASTODONS: Titans of the Ice Age

SHIPWRECK! Pirates & Treasure

At: Museum of Science, 1 Science Park, Boston, Sept. 23-March 3 (“Shipwreck!”) and Oct. 7–Jan. 13 (“Mammoths”). Free with exhibit halls admission: $19 ages 3-11, $22 ages 12-plus, $20 seniors 60-plus. 617-723-2500, www.mos.org

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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