Abu Dhabi: Do you want to see the largest piece of the moon to have ever hit the earth? Or the bones of four-tusked prehistoric elephants that once roamed the Al Dhafra region?
A 13kg lunar meteorite and tusks of a primitive elephant known as stegotetrabelodon, will join the famed tyrannosaurus rex fossil (T-rex), Stan, and the Murchison meteorite, at the upcoming Natural History Museum in Abu Dhabi. For the moment, they are also on display at the Manarat Al Saadiyat as part of an exhibition that will run until May 12.
“Many people in Arabia don’t realise the geological and fossil history of Arabia and the reason they don’t realise this is because there wasn’t a natural-history museum here. Museums are inspiring and educational and natural history museums play an important role in educating people about the story of our universe,” Dr Mark Beech, head of archaeology for Al Dhafra and Abu Dhabi in the Historic Environment Department of the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi).
“It is the first time that a natural-history museum is [looking at all of this] through an Arabian lens and it therefore gives a local perspective on the development of flora and fauna. It [also] tells us of a time seven million years ago when Abu Dhabi had elephants, crocodiles, hippopotamus, giant rivers, sabre-toothed cats, hyenas, and even early horses — all living in the Al Dhafra region,” he added.
The Abu Dhabi Natural History Museum is expected to open specifically within the Saadiyat Cultural District on Saadiyat Island. Initial announcements stirred up excitement about Stan, the 67-million-year-old skeleton that is among the most intact and well-preserved dinosaur specimens in the world. The skeleton was auctioned off by auction house Christie’s, and Abu Dhabi recently announced that it will be available for research and study in its new home.
“This will not only be a museum with amazing exhibitions containing thousands of specimens — and we already have thousands of specimens — but it will also be a research institute with its own research staff undertaking research and teaching,” Dr Beech said.
The accomplished archaeologist and published author has himself been involved in paleontological research in Abu Dhabi, including that of the Baynunah Formation, a sequence of sandstones and mudstones, in Al Dhafra region that contains fossils dating back to the Late Miocene period.
One of Dr Beech’s discoveries from Ruwais — a two-and-a-half metre-long upper tusk of a stegotetrabelodon elephant uncovered in 2002 — is, in fact, on display at the Manarat Al Saadiyat exhibition.
“Natural history museums play a very important role in life. People get to know the story of our universe, from the beginnings of the universe, development of our solar system, geological formation of planets, the emergence of planets, and the different geological ages. The Abu Dhabi Natural History Museum will also make us think about the future and the fragility of the planet. After taking visitors on a journey down millions of years, it will take you to the present day, and will encourage people to think about how we can live more sustainably and be better carers of our planet amid global warming, plastic pollution [and other challenges],” Dr Beech said.
Filling a gap
According to the researcher, the museum will join an elite network of natural history museums that help advance humanity’s understanding of the ages and the universe.
“This museum will join an important network of natural history museums, which include the ones in London, Paris, Washington, Berlin and Chicago. All these international museums do very important research work and Abu Dhabi’s museum will play a leading role in the development of natural scientific research in the Middle East. This has been absent thus far,” Dr Beech explained.
Housed in the Saadiyat Cultural District, the museum will also “fill a gap” in Abu Dhabi’s cultural offerings, complementing the Louvre Abu Dhabi as a universal museum, the upcoming Zayed National Museum’s focus on national UAE history, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi as a platform for contemporary art.
Natural history highlights
Stan, the T-rex fossil: Stan is a 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex fossil found in the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota in 1987, and excavated in 1992. It is the fifth most complete T-rex fossil discovered to date and with 199 bones, the skeleton is about 60 per cent complete. It is 11.7 metres in length and about 3.64 metres tall at the hip.
Notably, Stan also has the best-preserved skull of any T-rex ever found and Dr Beech said the skull is emulated in casts and replicas at museums around the world. The skeleton also shows multiple healed injuries, allowing researchers to draw inferences on a T-Rex’s life and environment.
In October 2020, the fossil was sold for $31.8 million (Dh116.96 million) at auction, making it the most expensive dinosaur specimen and fossil ever sold.
Murchison meteorite: The Murchison meteorite is a meteorite that fell in Australia in 1969 near Murchison, Victoria. It belongs to a group of meteorites rich in organic compounds. Due to its mass at over 100kg, it was an observed fall and the Murchison meteorite is one of the most studied of all meteorites.
Scientists have theorised that the meteorite may be a fragment of a comet. It is made of stardust — tiny crystals formed in exploding stars billions of years before the Sun began to shine. Blasted across space, this stardust mixed with the gas cloud from, which our solar system was formed, and the meteorite therefore provides clues to the types of stars that existed earlier in time, the composition of our solar nebula and the formations of the elements of the periodic table. Stardust is billions of years older than our Sun, and have been estimated to be seven billion years old.
One of the largest pieces of the moon ever to be found at 13kg, the lunar meteorite that landed in Western Sahara, identified as NWA12691, is also on display as part of the Natural History Museum collection. A collection with an asteroid launched this particular rock from the surface of the moon into space, and into the gravitational pull of the earth.
The meteorite is larger than any moonrock collected by astronauts.
Stegotetrabelodon remains: Discovered in Al Dhafra region, these remains point to prehistoric life in the UAE. A femur and mandible of a baby stegotetrabeolodon, as well as an upper tusk of a grown one, are on display, and are part of the museum’s collection.
Baynunah Formation: The Baynunah Formation is a sequence of sandstones and mudstones that are mainly fluvial in origin and that contain fossils at several levels. Up to some 60 metres thick, the formation is exposed along more than 200km of the Abu Dhabi coastline in Al Dhafra region.
Experts have so far discovered several creature fossils in the formation, including that of fish, birds, monkey and other creatures, indicating that the area once had a large meandering river system with woodlands on its flanks.
These fossils are not on display yet, but will be part of the Natural History Museum when it opens.