by Greg Mayer
Today’s post features subterranean wildlife, but not of the fossorial kind. It has wildlife you can see in the New York subway, but it’s not “pizza rat” or his later avatars: it’s the wildlife art of the 8th Avenue local (B and C trains) station at 81st-Museum of Natural History.
Elegant tile-work has long been a signature note of the New York subways, and when the station was renovated (reopening in 2000), the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority collaborated in creating extensive artwork for the station, one of whose exits goes directly into the Museum.
We’ll start with my favorite, what is clearly a hatchling Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis; the proportions, especially the large head, show it’s a hatchling). The Museum clearly had significant input on the designs, although it’s not always clear if the artists followed exact specifications for species identification, but in this case I’m confident. Important work on anoles was done by former curators James Oliver and G.K. Noble, and the latter’s anole work was mostly on this species.
We’ll continue with the rest of the lizards. The next is clearly a monitor lizard, and it’s bulk indicates it’s a Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis).
Next up is a basilisk or Jesus Christ lizard (Basiliscus sp.), famed for their bipedal locomotion, which includes the ability to skitter Christ-like across the surface of bodies of water for short distances. This mosaic introduces an element common to the artwork, the depiction of extinct forms as grayed “ghost” silhouettes, often paired with an extant form. In this case we have two bipedal diapsids: the basilisk and the theropod dinosaur Deinonychus (note the ‘terrible claw’ and short snout); the latter is about life size, but the basilisk is greater than life size. (This is an estimate, but I think the white tiles are either 4″X4″ or 5″X5″; if anyone knows the size–or can measure!–put it in the comments.)
There’s a chameleon (Chamaeleo sp.). I’ve not attempted to determine the species. (It could be intended to be a species in another genus in the family Chamaeleontidae, but Chamaeleo is the type genus, and will do as at least approximately correct.) A nice detail is that the zygodactlous left front foot (‘hand’) can be seen grasping the black tiles, as though the latter constituted a tree branch. (The hind feet are curiously stubby-looking.)
Snakes are, of course, just glorified lizards. This one’s head and neck, and the fact that it hangs from the ‘branch’ make it look like a vine snake, but I’ll offer no more of a guess than that. Note how, as in the Chamaeleo above, the artwork can ‘overlay’ the regular wall design.
Next is a fairly nondescript snake, superimposed on the long tail of a long-necked sauropod dinosaur. The whole dinosaur looked like Diplodocus to me.
Having finished the order Squamata, we move on to the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), not a lizard, but the sole living member of the order Rhynchocephalia. This is another of my favorites.
This broad-snouted crocodilian looks like an alligatorid, and is nicely paired with a Stegosaurus. Were it black, I would readily identify it as an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), but the greenish-brown color makes me hesitate. The details of form in this one are not as satisfying as they are in most of the others. Note how the tail tip, which extends on to the dark paving tiles of the floor and trim, is rendered in a different type of tile.
Next is another favorite, an adult male Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). The two things I like most about this one are the inclusion of the narial excrescence, a rarely depicted seasonally-present secondary sexual character of male gharials, and that the dark paving tile stones are treated as the ‘water’, from which the Gharial emerges. The dark stone is replaced with a lighter brown granite-like material to indicate the parts ‘underwater’. If you enlarge the image and look carefully, you can see that the outline of the Gharial is also continued into the glossy black enamel tiles. Although not visible in this photo, the body curls through the enamel tiles, and the Gharial’s tail re-enters the paving tiles, to again be represented by the granite-like stone.
Finishing up the reptiles we have a giant tortoise. The surviving species of giant tortoise are from Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean and the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. The somewhat high front opening of the carapace is more characteristic of some of the subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) than of the Aldabra Tortoise, and so I will go with that as a species identification.
We’ll finish off our subway tour with the amphibians and a few fish tomorrow.