Museum of Nature: Slowing down to catch up with survival in new live animal exhibition

Lilo, the baby sloth, was the star of the event. Photo: Peter Simpson

The elevators at the Canadian Museum of Nature, as in most museums and galleries, are glacially slow, so it was unexpected to be in one with something slower — and cuter. Lilo, the baby sloth, was on her way up.

Lilo was the star at the media preview for the new exhibition Survival of the Slowest, where she cuddled on a blanket in the arms of a human tender while besotted visitors ooo-ed and ahh-ed. I leaned in for a photo and she made a grab for my phone, which, admittedly, didn’t take lightening reflexes to avoid. She moved at a proverbial snail’s pace, which I verified with the help of several large snails behind us — giant African land snails, to be precise.

Little Ray’s Paul Goulet holds Roger the sloth, much to the delight of those at the preview. Photo: Richard Redmond

Despite the title, the exhibition is not just about slow animals. It’s about the adaptations creatures make to survive, sometimes counter-intuitively. It’s about how animals have adapted to “avoid being someone else’s lunch,” as a museum release pointedly puts it.

The exhibition includes 19 habitats with live creatures inside, and some are anything but slow. There’s a straw-coloured fruit bat with a wingspan of 75 centimetres, which can fly up to 200 kilometres in a search of fruit and nectar. And there’s Rucker, an American barn owl, a species that, despite its speed and agility and its exceptional vision and hearing, is endangered. Due to use of the pesticide DDT, only about 20 American barn owls survive in the wild in Ontario, which demonstrates that no adaptation can assure survival when humans are about.

Flight also appears in a section on hot- and cold-bloodedness, and the comparative advantages and disadvantages of each. There’s a display of tiny, colourful Gouldian finches, from Northern Australia. Hot-blooded creatures tend to have a higher metabolism, and the finches expend so much energy on flight that they “consume up to 30 per cent of their body weight in food every day,” which, personally, is something I’ve not done since last Christmas.

A ball python. Photo: Richard Redmond

Veiled chameleon. Photo: Richard Redmond

The exhibition is a collaboration between the museum and Little Ray’s Nature Centres, “the largest exotic animal rescue organization in Canada,” and most animals in the exhibition are rescues, the museum says.

Little Ray’s is well-known for bringing exotic creatures to children in schools and elsewhere.

Its staff members are adept at introducing the public to, say, a New Caledonia giant gecko, a reptile that is both cold-blooded and nocturnal but has adapted to control its body temperature “just as well as geckos that are awake in the daytime.”

Staff from Little Ray’s will be on site daily, and bringing creatures out of their habitats for close-up views that will thrill or chill visitors, depending on their perspective. One staffer cupped his hands beneath a chaco golden-knee tarantula, a creature with biblical patience. Tarantulas can wait as long as two years for a meal.

The population of American barn owls has been decimated by pesticide use. Photo: Richard Redmond

Pancake Tortoise. Photo Richard Redmond

The exhibit also has wicked-looking scorpions, and snakes of various sorts, and here too, the Little Ray’s staff were helpful. An issue with creatures that have adapted to not be easily seen is that they may not be easily seen. One habitat contains a Dumeril’s monitor, and I had to take the museum’s word for it, as I monitored the habitat for some time without a sighting — long enough to come up with that bad pun.

Another terrarium includes a ball python, and I searched and searched without a sighting, until I looked up and there it was, coiled atop a branch and staring at me as if sizing me up for a meal. I was as startled as a plump, delicious mouse.

Most creatures are more easily spotted, such as the adult two-toed sloth that was contentedly sleeping among the branches in its habitat. While Lilo the baby sloth is not a full-time part of the exhibit but make will regular visits, the adult sloth can be seen daily, and what a remarkable adaptor it is. Sloths grow algae on their fur to better hide amid the foliage, and, being so slow, they only leave the tree tops “to mate and to poop.” That would be one interesting date.

Remarkably, they typically go up to 21 days without having to urinate or defecate. To put it in human terms, a sloth could attend all two weeks of Bluesfest without ever having to line up for a Porta-Potty — which would be a relief for the rest of us, as a sloth can poop up to one-third of its body weight.

Survival of the Slowest continues to April 22.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.