Mississippi Surprise: Museum spotlights state’s diverse wildlife from past and present

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Stuffed white-tailed deer greet visitors to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.
They’re a perfect welcoming committee in a state where hunting is both pastime and passion. It also makes sense that ducks and geese are strung from the ceiling to look as though they’re flying overhead.
Things get odd when you follow the stairs down to the next floor and catch your first glimpse of zeuglodon, a toothed whale that swam the oceans covering Mississippi about 35 million years ago.
Get a little closer and you’ll learn zeuglodon made its home in Scott and Jasper counties a ridiculously long time before there were any human beings around to think up a word like “county.”
Each year, an estimated 150,000 people visit the museum, a place where the commonplace and the exotic go side by side.
One of the oldest Mississippi residents on display is placoderm. It was a fish with an armored head, large eyes and snapping jaws, and it hunted its prey between 360 and 410 million years ago.
Placoderm is a mean-looking thing, and you’d be a fool to go water skiing if it still stalked the state’s waters.
In more recent times – about 10,000 years ago – saber-toothed cats and giant sloths roamed these parts, along with giant bison, mastodons and American lions.
Who knew there was an American lion?
People who visit the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science – that’s who.
Part of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the museum is located on 300 acres in LeFleur’s Bluff State Park. It also features 2.5 miles of nature trails.
The museum got its start in the 1930s, thanks to the efforts of Fannye A. Cook. She was a conservationist who traveled the state, educating the public and elected officials about Mississippi’s forests and wildlife.
It was her idea to build the museum, and she served as its director and curator for 25 years.
Cook’s legacy of conservation continues, as the museum spotlights 80 endangered species and subspecies of plants and animals that call Mississippi home. That list includes the rainbow snake, the gulf sturgeon, the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the black bear, the manatee and the Florida panther.
Live encounters
The museum also offers up-close-and-personal looks at a variety of living creatures.
If you time your visit right, you’ll get to see Karen Dierold, an aquarium biologist, feed fish to the alligators in a 20,000-gallon “swamp.”
“We have an agreement worked out,” she said. “I leave them alone, they leave me alone. If I’m going to be in there, I’ll feed them before I get in.”
The alligators quickly recognize Dierold’s fish bucket. Large catfish in the tank tend to slam into the alligators in an attempt to steal a meal.
Dierold doesn’t give the alligators a chance to consider her a meal.
“When they quit being scared of me and I get scared of them, we swap them out,” she said. “That’s when they reach 4 feet long or so.”
The museum operates 100,000 gallons of aquarium space filled with live fish and reptiles from the state’s diverse ecosystems. Saltwater fish from the Gulf Coast are in tanks next to specimens from the Mississippi, Tennessee and Pearl rivers, among other bodies of water.
The museum is a teaching and research institution. Scientists travel the state to collect samples and determine the health of species.
They also make discoveries.
The Pearl River aquarium features graptemys pearlensis, otherwise known as the Pearl River map turtle. It’s a new species that was found in 2010.
Dierold said advances in technology should result in an explosion of new species in the near future.
“It happens a lot more than you might think,” she said.
Thanks to DNA testing, scientists are learning that fish and reptiles once thought to be in the same species are actually unique. A new DNA lab is on the premises, so researchers have fresh tools to examine the state’s flora and fauna.
Who knows what they might find?
Visitors to the museum are bound to make discoveries, too.
Even the commonplace can become exotic when you learn white-tailed deer can run three to four minutes at 35 miles per hour and can swim 11 to 13 miles per hour.
Something at the museum is guaranteed to make your eyes widen and your jaws slacken. Mississippi will surprise you if you let it.

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