by Maganjeet Kaur (with a special thank-you to Lim Tze Tshen for a tour of the museum)
The distance may seem daunting but, housing a collection that dates to the early 1900s and showcasing Malaysia’s rich biodiversity, the Natural History Museum is well worth the drive to Putrajaya.
Malaysia is listed as one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world, i.e countries that have a high percentage of the Earth’s plant and animal species as well as a high percentage of species endemic to the country. Although only a fraction of this diversity is captured in the museum, the museum does provide some interesting representations in the various animal categories.
The seas are no less vibrant and 77 molluscs are displayed providing an easy reference guide for cataloging.
The on-going exhibition on skeletons is especially interesting as it provides an insight into how skeletons of different groups of animals evolved and adapted to their different functions. Flight requires a strong but light-weight structure. To achieve this, the skeleton in birds was adapted with a strong chest bone to hold the flight muscles. In addition, some bones were eliminated and the remaining ones hollowed out. The front limbs saw a reduction in digits and development of feathers. However, it is believed that the development of feathers was an exaptation; their original purpose could have been to regulate heat and it was only later that they were adapted for flight.
To live in trees, arboreal creatures (e.g. primates and koalas) developed strong chest and hip bones while a prehensile tail provided stability to navigate the canopy. The opposable thumb evolved allowing primates to grasp tree branches; this same opposable thumb would later give flexibility to hominids to fashion tools and weapons from stone and other materials. Did Darwin get it right when he said it was the need to free the hands to handle tools and weapons that gave rise to bipedalism? The earliest known stone tools date to 2.6 million years ago while hominids started walking upright 6 million years ago making it unlikely it was the need to handle tools that caused bipedalism. Many other theories abound; one that is gaining popularity specifies that wading in shallow water to forage for edibles necessitated walking on two legs. In addition, water cushioned the joints from pressure in an upright position allowing hominids to walk on two legs for longer periods.
It is said that it was the use of technology that shaped us into who we are, that pushed us onto a very different evolutionary track from the other primates. Performing complex tasks increased our brain capacity to the 1,300 ml average of today. Compare this to the 400 ml of the extant Australopithecus and the same amount of the chimpanzee today. This increased brain capacity has enabled our march to the stars.