Elephants and humans go way back. Whether they’re starring in ancient cave paintings or modern children’s cartoons, these pachyderms have been capturing our imaginations since prehistory. Though most cultures view elephants in a positive light, our relationship to them often is contentious. Human-caused threats like hunting, habitat loss, and climate change have pushed many species to extinction or the brink of it. A new exhibit coming to New York City’s American Museum of Natural History explores the past, present, and future of the superlative animals and our role in their survival.
“The Secret World of Elephants” attempts to fit the full story of the world’s largest land mammals into a single exhibition. That story begins around 5 million years ago, when the first members of the family Elephantidae roamed the Earth. A life-sized woolly mammoth model—complete with a coat in the process of being shed for summer—greets visitors when they turn the corner into the museum hall. Other extinct species spotlighted may look less familiar to guests, like the Sicilian dwarf elephants, which grew to be roughly the size of newborn African elephants.
The living species examined in “The Secret World of Elephants” are just as impressive as their prehistoric ancestors. Interactive exhibits highlight their incredible adaptations, from their temperature-regulating ears to their dexterous trunks. In addition to their unique physical characteristics, elephants boast rich emotional and social lives. At one point, guests are encouraged to “speak elephant” after learning how the animals use different sounds and behaviors to communicate greetings, play, courtship, and mourning with one another.
After showcasing the amazing ways elephants live, the exhibit dives into how their natural way of life is under threat. Only three elephant species are alive today—African savanna elephants, African forest elephants, and Asian elephants—and they’re all classified as endangered.
“We hope that people come to appreciate elephants anew and think about what our role is in the planet in ensuring that we have elephants going forward in time,” Lauri Halderman, senior vice president for the exhibition, said at a press event. “I think the exhibition is also in its heart a celebration of elephants. They’re so amazing, in all the ways they’ve adapted [...] I hope the exhibition gives people a chance to find something new they didn’t know from their years of pop culture exposure to elephants.”
“The Secret World of Elephants” opens to the public on Monday, November 13.