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Explaining Biodiversity at National Geographic

Biodiversity, the numbers of different plant and animal species on earth, is the subject of a new exhibit at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. Entitled "Biodiversity 911," in reference to the American emergency 911 phone number. The display describes the urgent need to protect endangered species. The exhibit's target audience is young people, so it does everything possible to grab the attention of visitors.

On a recent Friday afternoon, several staffers from the World Wildlife Fund set up a huge game-show wheel at the "Biodiversity 911" exhibit. Visitors spin the wheel and answer conservation-related questions for prizes.

Susan Norton of the National Geographic Society says it was the 41-year-old World Wildlife Fund that originated the "Biodiversity 911" exhibit.

"We have a long partnership, the society and the World Wildlife Fund, which is headquartered here in Washington," she said. "They brought this idea to us about a year-and-a-half ago, and we thought it was a wonderful idea. We try at least a couple of times a year to have exhibits specifically focussed for children."

Visitors can also join Billy Brennan, a natural sciences presenter, in an interactive video display area.

As Susan Norton explains, Mr. Brennan uses the voice and appearance of a famous chef to present his biodiversity message. "He makes a 'sustainable stew', and he's dressed as Julia Child," she explains. "He tells us we should try to make a stew and decide which parts of the ocean supply would make a responsible stew. We're given shopping lists and asked to choose what we would put in the stew. After we get our shopping lists together, [the display] tells us whether we made responsible decisions, or whether indeed some of the fish or seafood we chose are actually endangered or seriously over-fished."

Among the endangered fish species are Patagonian toothfish and striped bass. Another display shows how different soils serve as homes for a variety of plants and animals.

"[One section] is about soils from around the world and what lives in them and what makes up the soil. A lot of these activities are at children's [height] levels so they can peek in and look underneath, and stick their hand into holes in the ground where different animals would live in," she said. "So they get an idea of what's under the ground that we walk on every day." Students from a charter school in Washington, DC, join teacher Catherine Mitchell in smelling a jar of soil in the display.

At another stop on the "Biodiversity 911" route is a set of old luggage. Susan Norton says visitors are invited to open them. "It's filled with old suitcases that are filled with items that people tried to bring into the U.S. and were caught by customs officials," she said. "In the case I'm holding now, we have four spotted cat skins that were [smuggled] in. Over here, we have dwarf crocodiles that were hidden in very nice clothing. When customs officials had reason to look in the case, they found there was a serious violation of the customs law here."

Other exhibits in the "Biodiversity 911" exhibit include displays about toxins, river drainage and global warming.

Ms. Norton says today's exhibit designers have to grab the attention of young people raised in the "MTV generation," and with limited attention spans. "So we try to have low-tech elements, high-tech elements, a lot of color, a lot of photographs, sound," she explained. "It's all a part of making an exhibit compelling."