The coelacanth (latimeria chalumnae) was thought to have gone extinct tens of millions of years ago. Considered a “living fossil,” coelacanths are classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 

When the 81st street subway station on the A-B-C line was renovated in 1998-2000, the MTA partnered with the American Museum of Natural History (which is directly above the station) to create For Want of a Naila masterpiece that is museum-worthy in its own right. The gorgeous bronze casts, embedded wall mosaics, and floor carvings mosaics have likely caught the eye of the millions of people who ride the subway every day, but how many have noticed the small red question marks hidden in some of the animals that line the walls of the uptown platform? Look for them in the photos below. 

The brightly colored mosaics of living animals in the upper platform are in stark contrast with the pale silhouettes of animals that have gone extinct. However, the story that the mosaics tell is not set in stone (even if they are set in tile). For those keen enough to spot them, the question marks highlight the dimension of the story that is still in progress by indicating the animals on the endangered species list at the time the artwork was created. Fittingly, the title of the collection refers to an old proverb and serves as a reminder that even the smallest actions can have major consequences––especially when a species’ existence hangs in the balance.  

The procession of animals on the upstairs platform culminates in a larger red question on a blue gradient background which is intended to represent the possibility of another extinction.

Sandra Bloodworth, an artist who is also the director of MTA Arts & Design, and Kendal Henry and Mona Chen, comprised the three-artist team that were primarily responsible for designing the underground gallery (the actual mosaics were made by Stephen Miotto), and chose to have the question marks be subtle so that passers by could discover them and ponder their message. There is also a slightly larger red question on a blue gradient background which is intended to represent the possibility of another extinction. Some of the species depicted are no longer considered threatened or endangered, but there are always others to take their place on the list. 

The Green Sea Turtle (chelonia mydas) is listed as endangered by the IUCN.

The Galapagos Giant Tortoise (chelonoidis hoodensis) remains critically endangered.

 Tuataras (sphenodon guntheri) are considered living fossils. At the time the mosaic was created, Tuataras were endangered. Today, however, due to conservation efforts, their status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has changed been changed to vulnerable.

Several subspecies of the tiger beetle are endangered. They are one of the few insect groups to be definitively placed on the IUCN Red List. 

Jaguars (panthera onca) have a status of near threatened on the IUCN Red List. Their numbers continue to decrease, placing them even more at risk than they were when the mosaic was made. The question mark is on the right front paw. 

The humpback whale (megaptera novaeangliae) was listed as endangered in 1970 under the Endangered Species Conservation Act. In 2008, the listing was changed from vulnerable to least concern by the IUCN, although several distinct population segments remain critically endangered. The question mark is on the lower part of the tail. 

It is unclear what type of owl this is meant to represent. Many different species of owl that were not recognized as endangered at the time the mosaic was created have since made it onto the IUCN Red List.

In the time since the mosaic was created, preservation efforts allowed the Bald Eagle (haliaeetus leucocephalus) to make a remarkable comeback. It was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in 2007.

Next, discover 20 other secrets of the NYC Subway. Join us for an underground tour of the NYC subway: 

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