In November, as COVID-19 surged, museums and other public places were shut down in Philadelphia. For the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, it came at a particularly unfortunate time — the museum was about to open a big exhibition Nov. 20 highlighting creatures from the Permian period.
Instead, staffers finished setting up seven animatronic models, including the saber-toothed Gorgonopsid, which looks like a toothy cow with big legs, and a Cacops, a kind of baby alien poised before a serious growth spurt.
And when they finished, they turned off the lights, locked the door, and went home.
But Friday, the doors finally swing open again and “Permian Monsters: Life Before the Dinosaurs,” as the exhibition is called, will at last have its day — about 250 million years since the last gorgonopsid walked the earth.
Visitors will see casts of the beasts’ fossilized skeletons, scientifically accurate 3D sculptures, the animatronic creatures, and artwork by Julius Csotonyi.
A spokesperson for the Academy said the movable, roaring, mechanical beasts have been put through their paces after six weeks of inactivity. They still roar the terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth. Lights have been adjusted and everything has been thoroughly dusted.
“It was ready to go on the day that we had to close,” the spokesperson said, including the animatronics.
“We’re not out to terrify,” she said. “It’s to show people what creatures roaming the earth 290 million years ago looked like, and they’re pretty weird looking.”
The Permian period ended in the greatest mass extinction in earth’s history, so far, clearing the decks for the age of dinosaurs.
“Well, we all love dinosaurs, right, but there’s not a single dinosaur in this exhibit,” said Ted Daeschler, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Academy and professor at Drexel.
“This is really another world. This is the world that precedes dinosaurs, basically. It’s sort of the same stage … but it’s a different cast of characters. And we’re talking about the timeframe in the Permian from about 290 to about 250 million years ago and the large, land-living animals. A big part of this exhibit are actually not reptiles at all. They are a group that would actually be the precursors to mammals.”
That would make them what are known as synapsids, and they’re unlike any mammal you’ve ever seen. Think hippo crossed with antelope and sailfish. They are “so primitive,” Daeschler said, “I can’t even call them mammal.”
But despite their antediluvian biology, these creatures proliferated and diversified to an extraordinary degree. They dominated the planet.
Until the mass extinction. About 250 million years ago, due to severe climate change, it is now believed, some 90 percent of all life on the planet was wiped out. Scientists now say that a massive volcanic eruption triggered the event.
One group of Permian creatures “actually survived the big extinction event at the end of the Permian and leads to the earliest mammals within the next time frame, the Triassic period, which is also when dinosaurs get their start,” Daeschler said.
“I should mention that there are true reptiles in the Permian period. They’re kind of supporting actors, if you will. They’re not common and they’re not dominant. It’s some of those early reptiles that make it through the Permian extinction into the Triassic and become the seeds for the dinosaur revolution.”
Permian Monsters: Life Before the Dinosaurs