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At Midland's Sibley Center, an Ice Age Adventure is Underway

photograph courtesy Michael Nickell. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! The Sibley Nature Center in Midland has a new exhibit on the Pleistocene Epoch in West Texas, and the first modules showcase the immense bears and great cats that lived here in the Ice Age.

American lions, saber tooth tigers and short-faced bears, oh my! A day in Ice Age West Texas is terrifying to imagine. And now, West Texans can experience the Pleistocene past at a new exhibit at the Sibley Nature Center in Midland.

Mammoths and mastodons. Camels and horses. Giant ground sloths. Beavers the size of bears. Herds of massive bison antiquus. And the immense predators – the American lion, the scimitar-toothed cat. A day in Ice Age West Texas would have put the grandest African safari to shame. It's exhilarating, if terrifying, to imagine it.

Now, West Texans can do more than imagine the Pleistocene past. An ambitious new exhibit at the Sibley Nature Center in Midland is bringing the Ice Age to life. And it reminds us how the legacy of that vanished time shapes our world today.

Michael Nickell is Sibley's museum scientist. 

“I'm not all that an excitable sort of guy,” Nickell said, “but when I get on to something like this, that's when I really become animated.”

Nickell's Pleistocene exhibit began with a single item – a mammoth tusk, donated by the Museum of the Southwest. But Nickell's enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. Sibley's executive director, Paul Acosta, urged him toward something more expansive – and donors, notably the F. Marie Hall Foundation, agreed.

Now, Nickell is rolling out an exhibit with a dozen modules. It's Sibley's first new large-scale exhibit in more than a decade. 

The Pleistocene Epoch, which began some 2.5 million years ago, is called the Ice Age for a reason. At one point, glaciers covered all of what's now Canada, south into present-day Ohio – our region was cool, and relatively lush. That colder world favored animals with meat on their bones, and the Pleistocene was dominated by large mammals, or “megafauna.”

The Sibley exhibit's first two modules are up now. And they introduce the most intimidating of Ice Age megafauna.

“Let me put it to you this way: How high is a basketball goal?,” Nickell said. “Ten feet. A short-faced bear could look down on it, if it stood up on its hind feet. When it stood up on its hind legs, it could have been anywhere between 12 and 14 feet tall.”

The short-faced bear was perhaps the largest predatory land mammal in Earth's history. These bears are estimated to have weighed 2,000 lbs or more.

The new exhibit features museum-quality replicas of a short-faced bear skull, and of its massive claw. There are also grizzly and black bear skulls, which make for an arresting comparison.

The second display up now showcases other predators – our region's Ice Age great cats. There's a skull of the vanished American lion – 25 percent larger than a modern lion, it's one the largest cats known to science. There's a saber-toothed cat skull, and the skull of a scimitar-toothed cat. Scimitar-toothed cats – like modern lions – were social. Their favored prey were baby mammoths.  

Nickell has also included a taxidermied bobcat from Sibley's longstanding collection. Making the connection between Ice Age animals and familiar contemporary creatures is a thread throughout the exhibit.

“Because what we've got living with us today are largely the survivors of the Pleistocene,” Nickell said. “So I'm featuring both – both the extinct megafauna that we had here on the Llano Estacado and surrounding areas, plus the living stuff with us today.”

Nickell is writing the interpretive material for the exhibits, with editorial help from Midland's Hancock Advertising Group. Another local business – the Chase Woodworking Company – is constructing the display cases. During the coming year, Nickell will introduce new elements of the exhibit roughly every six weeks. Those will include displays on Ice Age canines, including the dire wolves that once roamed our region; on elephant kin like mammoths, mastodons and gomphotheres; and on the “xenarthrans.” This last group includes giant ground sloths, and “glyptodonts” – armadillos that were the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Ice Age West Texas is an abiding fascination for Nickell. He's a gifted artist as well as a scientist, and on a recent visit to the Panhandle-Plains Museum, in Canyon, he became so absorbed in sketching a sloth skeleton that he missed the signs of closing and was briefly locked in. But his interest was brought to a boil by a recent discovery: the “ghost tracks” of White Sands.

On a lakebed at this New Mexico national park, scientists are documenting thousands of fossilized Ice Age footprints, of mammoths, camels, horses, sloths – and people. And the human prints have been dated to 22,000 years old. 

It suggests people lived here alongside the megafauna – hunting mammoths and sloths, evading lions and short-faced bears – for many thousands of years. The Sibley exhibit will showcase these findings, and the many other traces of Paleolithic people in our region.

The exhibit will also explore the closing of this Age of Titans. The Pleistocene ended 11,700 years ago – and, with the exception of the bison, the megafauna vanished.

Overhunting by humans may have been a factor. Perhaps an asteroid impact played a role. But Nickell said this extinction event – known as the Quaternary extinction – remains mysterious. 

“We probably know more about the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous than we really understand about the Quaternary,” Nickell said, “in my opinion, because humans were thrown in as a wild card.”

But as the Pleistocene ended, and the current Holocene Epoch began, one factor radically transformed the planet – in a way that resonates today. 

“And that's another thing about this exhibit: It's about climate change,” Nickell said. “I don't want to get into the political side of it – obviously, it's so polarized right now, I don't want to go there. But it's undeniable that there was a climate change between the Pleistocene and the Holocene.”

The warming of the planet was swift – and the effects catastrophic. Coastlines were inundated, as glaciers melted and sea levels rose. West Texas began its transition into a desert. It was no doubt profoundly disruptive for humankind. But in the millennia after the Quaternary extinction, people around the globe began to domesticate plants and animals. They started to aggregate in settled communities. The dramatic changes that marked the end of the Ice Age also initiated the transition to the modern world. 

Today, Africa is the only place to witness the kind of megafauna our ancestors knew. But with a visit to the Sibley Center, you can step into the past – when West Texas was an American Serengeti.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.