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Freaks of nature

January 06, 2008|Scarlet Cheng

Nature abhors an anomaly, but we humans are fascinated by one

Note the gynandromorph butterflies and moth on display in the exhibition highlighting the rare, the beautiful and the historically noteworthy, "Treasures From the Vault," at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. These creatures are half male and half female, a phenomenon visible to the naked eye because the coloring, pattern and size of their wings reflect typical male traits on one side, female on the other. In the showcase, a standard male and female pair is positioned over the aberrant ones.

They're rare "developmental anomalies" perhaps fated for a short life, curator of entomology Brian Brown says by e-mail. "True bilateral gynandromorphs probably can survive for a time," he says, "but will be unable to reproduce, as they have incomplete reproductive systems." And, he adds, mismatched wings make it hard to elude predators.

The small but choice show is in a darkened gallery filled with dramatically lighted vitrines -- the spiraling cutaways of ammonite shells, from 80-million-year-old marine animals, placed at one entrance; a 7-foot-tall pair of elephant tusks near the other. A team of curators culled these gems, many infrequently displayed because they're so fragile, from the museum's 35 million specimens and objects.

There are prehistoric fossils, of course, including ammonites and the head of an extinct mosasaur, a reptile with a scary set of sharp teeth. There are also specimens of living creatures rarely seen -- and a few man-made objects -- Amelia Earhart's flight diary from her first transatlantic crossing in 1928, for instance. Joining them is an art installation, "The Importance of Objects," made by Los Angeles artist Kim Abeles for a museum project in 2005. Here Abeles has created an imaginative miniature of the museum, a tabletop with objects and specimens placed on a floor plan of the halls and galleries. It's a modern cabinet of curiosities, and, like this mini-show itself, open through Jan. 21, an invitation, of sorts, to go into the museum's actual rooms to check out the other treasures.


-- Scarlet Cheng

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