Can you imagine alligators and primates frolicking in the Arctic? Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Yet, this is exactly what it was like 50 million years ago! I couldn’t believe it either, that is, until I got the opportunity to work on our new summer blockbuster exhibition, Extreme Mammals.

One of the outstanding features of the exhibition is a large diorama that shows the animals and plants of Ellesmere Island (in the High Arctic) of 50 million years ago—during the Eocene Epoch.

View of the Extreme Mammals exhibition.
A lush, forested Ellesmere Island during the Eocene, 50 million years ago. Image: Russ Brooks © Canadian Museum of Nature
View of Cape Herschel on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut.
Ellesmere Island today, one of the coldest, driest places on Earth! Image: Marianne Douglas © Marianne Douglas

I was amazed to learn that during this time, the Arctic wasn’t a polar desert, but a lush, leafy place crawling with turtles, alligators, hippo look-alikes and even early primates!

This fascinating diorama gave us a chance to talk about the work that our own research and collections staff are doing to understand this unique period in Earth’s history.

We produced a video to highlight some of this important work. Watch the video below and in Extreme Mammals (beside the Eocene diorama). It features museum vertebrate palaeontologist Natalia Rybczynski working in the field with Mary Dawson from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. As you will see, studying this exceptional period in our Earth’s history may help us better understand our warming planet.

Extreme Mammals is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA, in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, USA and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, USA.