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Columns

Taming of the Dimetrodon

Fossils can’t build museums.

By Emily Zhao, Crimson Staff Writer

A Dimetrodon milleri lurks in the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s Romer Hall, the museum’s vertebrate paleontology room. About six feet long from tail tip to snout, the dimetrodon resembles a large lizard with a flared ridge “sail” down its spine and an obstinate blunt snout, like a cross between a dog’s and a crocodile’s. The Dimetrodon display’s interactive screen presents a trivia question: To which is the dimetrodon most closely related—dinosaur, chicken, lizard, or human?

The HMNH features bright hallways of animals taxidermied and fossilized, extant and extinct. Hummingbirds float in neatly pinned columns. South American armadillos rear twelve feet into the air. Crustaceans glow in the buttery distortion of preservative jars. Soft-bodied sea creatures, impossible to naturally preserve, attain immortality as glass recreations by the Blaschkas, the father-son duo also responsible for the museum’s acclaimed glass flower collection. In a room dedicated to geology, white shelves offset the glittering fractal palettes of rock specimens.

The museum’s physical artifacts literalize metaphors and freshen worn sentiments—we leave them more viscerally aware. The otherness of specimens sharpens estrangement and apartness; we can know more about the complete trajectory of a species that died millions of years ago than we can about humans. We will not, after all, be around to document our own demise. The vast time scales highlight ephemerality: tales of rise and fall, so often told about human empire, are immediate and unforgettable when expressed as twelve-foot-tall creatures, once terrors of land and ocean, stagnating behind thin panes of glass. To some degree we love museums not only for the novelty of the differences between us and these other creatures, but also for what these differences can reveal about us.

Despite its alien anatomy and its display grouping with the triceratops, velociraptor, and kronosaur, the dimetrodon is actually our proto-mammalian ancestor. (Humans and the dimetrodon are both synapsids, while dinosaurs, chickens, and lizards are sauropsids; these two groups branched around 320 million years ago.) The species went extinct in an event known as the Great Dying, which wiped out 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrates and 96 percent of marine species at the end of the Permian some 251 million years ago. Hypotheses for causes of the Great Dying include meteor collision, widespread volcanism, and climate change, intensified by a positive feedback loop in the biosphere, atmosphere, and ocean that eventually released massive quantities of methane from the seafloor and warmed the planet beyond habitable levels.

The Great Dying is one of the Big Five mass extinction events in Earth’s history. We are now undergoing the Sixth Extinction, an anthropogenic one. In 2014, Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction,” aggregating extinction predictions, reported that “One-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward extinction.” The World Wildlife Fund recently predicted that, at our current rate, 67% of wild animal populations alive in 1970 could be extinct by 2020. Beyond certain quantities, the numbers start to become senseless. We cannot visualize all of the pandas, polar bears, black rhinos, African elephants, Panamanian frogs, tigers, hammerhead sharks, gorillas, penguins, river dolphins, tuna, spider monkeys, bats—spinning too quickly through the Rolodex of pamphlet covers, the poignant faces become a futile blur.

Travesty though it is, the main point is not that these precious animals will be gone. It is that, at such scales of damage, we are no different, not so exempt from natural law as the glass between us and the Dimetrodon may suggest.

At the end of the 19th century, the cyclical El Niño-Southern Oscillation caused widespread drought and famine across swathes of Brazil, Africa, India, Russia, and Asia. Unrest racked the affected regions. The natural disasters killed a staggering 32 to 61 million people across what we now think of as the Third World, a death toll that historian Mike Davis argues was severely exacerbated by the Western world’s response, or lack thereof, to the devastation natural forces initiated. Davis’s book includes photographs of famine victims as “accusation, not illustrations,” faces stretched taut above skeletal bodies.

There are ghostly echoes today to the Great Dying, and to the 19th-century carnage that Davis calls the Late Victorian Holocaust. Accelerated ocean warming unpredictably destabilizes circulation and weather patterns. Heat waves roll across India. Droughts precipitate bloody conflicts. The first generation of climate refugees seek shelter—not just from distant places we bracket off as developing, but from as close as an island off the coast of Louisiana. Our faces are in the catalog next to the Dimetrodon’s, separated by a handful of genealogical branches and a few blips in global cycles.

Unlike the Dimetrodon, however, we have hope. We can learn, innovate and, most importantly, cooperate. Most of our contributions will, realistically, be microscopic—but we do have a choice. Read about climate policy. Donate to support good work. Talk to people; listen to people. We inherit all the millennia that led to the existence of places like the Museum of Natural History, all the love and curiosity that drives us to reassemble the past and worry about the future. Individual actions feel meaningless, but in aggregate we shape the world. This has been the problem, and can also be the solution. I, at least, am not resigned to leaving the planet in great exhalations of methane. Two hundred and fifty million years is a long, long time to wait.

Emily Zhao ’19, a former Crimson arts executive, lives in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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