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The American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History
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When the American Museum of Natural History opened to the public on April 6, 1869, a few hundred mounted birds and mammals were on view. Today it is home to vast collections of insects, invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, anthropological artifacts, and more fossil mammals and dinosaurs than any other museum in the world. It has over 200 working scientists and welcomes millions of visitors each year.

Founded by a young Harvard graduate named Albert Bickmore, the Museum swiftly outgrew the Arsenal Building in Central Park. On June 2, 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant laid the cornerstone for the Museum's permanent home in what would become known as Museum Park. The site now houses twenty-three buildings, including the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial on Central Park West and the Hayden Planetarium, which will reopen in 2000 as part of the new Rose Center for Earth and Space.

Both within these walls and far, far beyond them, the American Museum of Natural History has pioneered scientific research and discovery, a process characterized by scientists of great vision and nerve. One was Henry Fairfield Osborn, whose fossil hunters raced West in the 1890s.

Roy Chapman Andrew's famous Central Asiatic Expeditions found dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert in 1935.

Another legendary museum figure was scientist, explorer, writer, and teacher Margaret Mead, whose dedication to exploring the history of life and what it means to be human exemplifies the Museum's ongoing purpose.

The world's best-preserved specimen of a giant squid, the largest living invertebrate on Earth, is now on display, in the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History. The 25-foot-long male giant squid (Architeuthis kirkii) weighs 250 pounds and came to the Museum in 1998 from New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

The squid's arrival in June 1998 attracted considerable attention because so little is known about these mysterious creatures. Giant squid live at least a mile below the ocean's surface, and they have never been seen alive.

Of the dozens of squid species of large squid in the oceans, none comes close to the giant squid in size. It remains the stuff of nightmares and lurks as a sea monster in literature like Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

"The giant squid is the largest invertebrate on Earth, and a member of the class Cephalopoda, which includes octopus, nautilus, and extinct ammonites," said Neil Landman, curator in the Division of Paleontology. "It has the largest eyes in the animal kingdom - this one's eyes are six inches across. It also has a huge, parrotlike beak that it uses to rip chunks of flesh from its prey, probably fish. The squid has eight arms and two long tentacles, all equipped with toothed sucker rings. The mantle, or main body cavity of the Museum's specimen is 4 feet long, the head and arms are another 6 feet, and the two tentacles extend 15 feet beyond the end of the arms."

The Museum's squid was caught accidentally in late 1997, by a fishing boat in waters off New Zealand. It was flash-frozen on the boat and flown to New York, where it was delivered to the Museum on June 10 by refrigerated truck. Dr. Landman and Dr. Paula Mikkelsen, assistant curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, both performed the initial examination of the squid and subsequent preservation processes. They were assisted by Steve O'Shea, a biologist at the New Zealand National Institute, who arranged the donation, plus members of the Museum's staff. The three-week procedure included thawing and spreading out the specimen for measurement and observation, followed by injection with formalin. It remained two weeks in formalin, during which time the solution was closely monitored for changes in acidity. After washing and a one-week soak in fresh water, the squid was transferred into ethyl alcohol, the preservative in which it rests today.

The squid is on display in a specially created tank of fiberglass with glass windows -- which took over a year to design -- by the Museum Department of Exhibitions, under the direction of David Harvey, Vice President for Exhibitions. The Museum already has two life-size models of giant squid on view. One hangs from the ceiling opposite the real specimen in the Hall of Biodiversity and is a 105-year-old paper-mache model that is 42-feet-long. Purchased in 1895, it is the oldest model on display at the Museum. The other model can be seen battling a sperm whale -- its best-known predator -- in a diorama in the adjacent Hall of Ocean Life. The Museum's new giant squid specimen is expected to be on display for about two years, and then it will go to the Museum's research departments for study.

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