Walking Through Time: Scotland’s Lost Asteroid… the backstory

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The epic landscape of Northwest Scotland. (c) Adrian Glover

One day, in 2006, while waiting for his own samples to come back from the workshop, Oxford University’s Ken Amor decided to take a look at some thin sections from his departments teaching collection…

“…that was when I found my first grain of shocked quartz. I remember thinking at the time that at that moment I was the only person in the world of 7 billion to realise that the UK had been struck by an asteroid 1.2 billion years ago. Actually I didn’t tell my supervisor for two days because I wanted to hold onto that discovery moment for a little longer.” –Ken Amor, 2016

Those thin sections — infinitesimally thin slices, viewed under a microscope to reveal the rock’s internal structure– were from rocks collected at Stoer Bay in Northwest Scotland.

This bay, beside a scattering of crofters cottages and a ruined Thomas Telford church, is famous amongst geologists because, until recently, and despite 100 years of study, the sediments at Stoer just didn’t make sense.

In particular, one section of the rocks — known as the Stac Fada Member — was a puzzle. Wedged between layers of Torridonian Sandstone, and flecked with tiny fragments of greenish glass, it told of some event that was hot enough to melt rock (that glass!) and powerful enough to force itself between layers of sand, folding them in dramatic fashion as it did so.

A volcanic mudflow, or lahar, seemed like the best explanation. However, there was no evidence of other volcanic activity in the region around that time period.

In 2006, Ken Amor was beginning a DPhil at Oxford, investigating a possible asteroid impact crater at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary. As postgraduate students do, he acted as a demonstrator for the first year undergraduate field trip to northwest Scotland, and as countless other undergraduate field trips have done before and since, they stopped at Stoer:

“I was immediately struck by the textural similarity of the green devitrified glass and a piece of the 15 million year old suevite from the Ries impact crater in Germany… It was at this point standing on the outcrop in Stoer that I first had the idea that the Stac Fada might have an impact origin.”–Ken Amor, 2016

To test this, Ken needed microscopic evidence. The presence of shocked quartz would indicate that the Stac Fada member was material — or ‘ejecta’ — flung far and wide by an asteroid impact, and not volcanic in origin. He didn’t really expect to find any: after all this region is one of the most studied in the world, and a mecca for geologists.

“How many countless eyes of undergraduates had looked at these very same thin sections over several decades and not spotted anything unusual in the quartz grains…?”–Ken Amor, 2016

Nevertheless, there they were: shocked quartz grains in the Stac Fada member. Ken’s hunch appeared to be right — Stac Fada was, indeed, impact ejecta. This discovery changed the course of Ken’s DPhil research, and would go on to rewrite the geological history of Britain:

1.2 billion years ago an asteroid hit the UK, somewhere in the vicinity of Stoer Bay.

But where?

~

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Me with Mike Simms at Second Coast, sitting atop a layer of boulders (aka spallation) flung far and wide by the 1.2 billion year old asteroid impact (c) Renegade Pictures/Channel 4

I first met Mike Simms when I was over in Belfast to look at the Ulster Museum’s collection of Sicilian dwarf elephants. That is another story. This story, the story of Scotland’s lost asteroid crater, began over tea and biscuits when Mike told me about his upcoming holiday to Assynt.

Mike Simms is the Curator of Palaeontology at the Ulster Museum. He is a proper, old skool, Natural Historian, with expertise that runs from lichens to speleology to fossils. Much of his personal collection of fossils, collected since childhood, can now be found in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. And like any proper Natural Historian, he has a thing for rocks.

When Mike read Ken Amor’s 2008 paper identifying the Stac Fada Member as  impact ejecta, the only such deposit in the UK, those particular rocks jumped up his list of must-see places. So in June 2011, on a holiday with fellow geology enthusiast Geoff Steel, Mike insisted that they went to see the Stac Fada member for themselves.

“I had never intended to spend years on research into a 1.2 billion year old meteorite impact deposit in Scotland. I had just wanted to visit a couple of sites, pay homage to a remarkable event, collect a few lumps of it, and then on to other things.”–Mike Simms, 2015

But at a place called Second Coast, south of Ullapool, Mike saw something that stopped him in his tracks:

“It was the large angular blocks at Second Coast. Embedded in fairly well-sorted sandstone they were so profoundly anomalous. How could any geologist not wonder how they had got there? I knew enough about impact processes to realise that they could be spallation ejecta, launched at high speed from the perimeter of the impact. It’s the same process that launches meteorites from Mars and the Moon.”–Mike Simms, 2016

These blocks, formed of chunks of three billion year old Lewissian Gneiss, sat in the finely-grained sandstone that underlay the Stac Fada Member. Big heavy blocks that could not have been transported there by the gentle forces that laid down the sand around them. Mike’s explanation? They were the first wave of destruction let loose by the asteroid impact, chunks of bedrock torn and tossed asunder. They would have rained down from the sky, before — seconds later — being covered by the roiling mixture of melted and unmelted rock, buoyed on a superheated cushion of steam, that is now the Stac Fada Member.

And that might have been that. After all, simply adding this piece of extra detail to the Stac Fada impact ejecta story would have a been a satisfying, and unexpected, bonus to any holiday. And Mike and Geoff had a ferry to Lewis to catch. It was certainly enough to Mike decide to come back and look at the Stac Fada exposures, in more detail. It was on this second trip, in September 2011, that Mike realised he might be on to something bigger…

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Mike Simms at Stoer Bay in 2012 (c) Geoff Steel

Twenty five miles up the coast, at Stoer Bay, the force of the impact ejecta — and the effect of the cushion of steam that carried it forth — can be seen in the  dramatic folding of the sandstone layers around the Stac Fada Member. Steam became trapped in the mudstone layers, before exploding out and tearing layers of sand apart, while the impact eject was forced between those layers like great wedges.

When Mike saw those wedges he realised he could work out the direction that the impact ejecta had come from.  But he had to wait until a return visit in September of the same year to properly puzzle it out (that ferry to Lewis couldn’t wait!). The wedges thinned out towards the west, and so must have been travelling from a point of impact somewhere to the east. Inland.

This meant the impact crater could still be there.

“When I realised the stuff had come from the east, I figured that the only possible way to find a crater beneath the Moine Thrust was using geophysics. I knew that impact craters commonly are associated with gravity lows, but really didn’t expect to find anything still there. But I thought it might be worth taking a look at the BGS gravity map of the UK.”–Mike Simms, 2016

You may be surprised to learn that gravity actually varies very slightly across the surface of the earth, in relation to the density of the rock in each area. This is because gravitational pull is related to the mass of an object (just imagine holding two similar sized lumps of rock in your hand: one made of chalk, the other granite. The granite is heavier because it is denser, and has more mass). So an area with lots of chalk, like the White Cliffs of Dover, has lower gravity than an area like the Isle of Lewis whose bedrock is the dense Lewisian Gneiss. If an asteroid left a crater in the middle of some dense Lewisian Gneiss 1.2 billion years ago, as the boulders at Second Coast suggested, that crater would have rapidly been infilled with less dense Torridonian sandstone, leaving a tell-tale zone of lower gravity.

But 1.2 billion years is an awful lot of time, and thanks to plate tectonics, the Earth’s surface does not lie dormant. Between 410 and 430 million years ago the continents collided, closing the ancient Iapetus Ocean and uniting the rocks of what is now Scotland and England for the first time. In the process Scotland was compressed, with the rocks to the east thrust up and over those to the west, building mountains in the process. The effects of this can still be seen today, particularly in the Assynt region, where one billion year old Moine schists (a metamorphic rock) sit on top of half a billion year old limestones. These same Moine schists would have been pulled, like a shroud, over any impact crater, potentially destroying it in the process.

They hadn’t.

“I still remember clearly that moment when I pulled the rather crumpled map out of the drawer and saw the gravity low in just the place where I predicted a crater might be. That moment in research when you realise that you are the first person to see something for what it really is… Nothing compares with that.” –Mike Simms, 2016

What Mike saw on that British Geological Survey May was an area known as the Lairg Gravity Low, named for the small sheep market town at its centre.

And now Mike had an explanation for it: it was his impact crater.

He just had to convince everyone else.

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The zircon is shown here in in red. The yellow lamellae that cut across the zircon are reidite. The phases have been identified using a technique called “electron backscatter diffraction”. Image from Steven Reddy (Curtin University).

Ken Amor’s identification of the Stac Fada member as impact ejecta hadn’t been universally welcomed.

“After the paper was published [in 2008] I did hear of a few anecdotal stories of geologists who went apoplectic at the news and refused to believe in an impact origin for the Stac Fada. Science can get very emotional at times!” —Ken Amor, 2016

Subsequent research by Gordon Osinski, Lousia Preston and colleagues indicated that the amount of shocked quartz present in the Stac Fada sediments was much, much less than that found in other terrestrial impact ejecta, and concluded that it could be better explained as volcanic material that had been transported by water.

And so it was that three years on from Ken’s publication, as Mike was making his own discoveries, the asteroid impact origins of the Stac Fada Member were still a highly debated topic. On top of this Mike wasn’t an impact crater specialist. Together, this set the bar high for having his research accepted by the scientific community.

“I’ve read a great deal about impact craters so was in a position to look at various features with fresh eyes. But the manuscript was rejected by several journals before it was finally published. A couple of arch-critics of the impact theory reviewed the manuscript for the journal in which it finally appeared (PGA). Their comments were immensely helpful, enabling me to address many of the issues that they and others raised and strengthen my arguments still further.” —Mike Simms, 2016

It was just after Mike had received those helpful comments from his reviewers that he and I sat down for tea and biscuits in the Ulster Museums offsite store. Rather than get cross, or whinge about the review process, or even try to find a way to weasel out of addressing the reviewers comments, Mike was gearing up for another trip to Assynt to collect more data. And as I asked him about his upcoming ‘holiday’, I could feel how excited he was. It was palpable. And when he filled my in on the backstory, I could see why. There was a lot to play for.

But on top of his own data, Mike also had to contend with criticisms levelled at the impact ejecta theory itself, and there was nothing he could do about that: his field observations related to the direction the Stac Fada member was travelling when it was deposited, not its ultimate origins. So he could collect all the extra data in the world, but without definitive proof of an asteroid impact in the region, he was sunk.

“The suggestion that I have made, that the Lairg Gravity Low is actually a buried impact crater, would be quite unwarranted were it not for the existence of a thick and extensive impact ejecta layer, the Stac Fada Member, just a few tens of kilometres to the west…”–Mike Simms, 2015

Fortunately for Mike, another group of scientists were addressing this problem at exactly the same time.

~

Steven Reddy and Tim Johnson from Curtin University, Australia, had taken a closer look at shocked zircon grains within the Stac Fada member. Viewing the grains with a scanning electron microscope, and analysing the structure of those grains in fine detail, they identified the presence of an extremely rare mineral known as reidite within the zircon grains themselves.

Reidite (ZrSiO4) is only formed at incredibly high pressures, and these pressures are only experienced at the Earth’s crust in the event of an asteroid impact. The discovery of reidite in the Stac Fada Member was unequivocal proof that it was impact ejecta.

Ken Amor was right. An asteroid had hit NW Scotland 1.2 billion years ago.

It was now up to Mike to make his case for exactly where that impact had occurred.

~

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Regional geology of north-west Scotland showing relationship of the Stoer Group, and directional features within it, to the Lairg Gravity low and the Moine Thrust. The radial dotted lines are projected from key Stoer Group sites to the centre of the Lairg Gravity Low. From Simms (2015)

Over the course of four years, Mike visited every single exposure of Stac Fada. At each site he meticulously observed and recorded the features that provided directional evidence. From those wedges of ejecta at Stoer, to the orientation of malteser-like pimples known as ‘accretionary lapilli’* at Enard Bay, it all pointed in the same direction: towards Lairg. His final trip, in 2015, clinched it, and his paper was accepted for publication.

By identifying the Lairg Gravity Low as an impact crater, and measuring it (over 40km wide), Mike was able to estimate the size of the asteroid that hit Britain 1.2 billion years ago. At 3km in diameter, this puts it in the top 20 worldwide of known asteroid impacts.

So is that case closed for Scotland’s Lost Asteroid? Well, not quite.

“A borehole is needed to prove beyond doubt, but I think the evidence from the impact deposit ties in very well with the [Lairg Gravity Low]…it can account for all of the observations on the coast and at Lairg. This is how science should proceed; I have used evidence to suggest an internally consistent hypothesis, which ultimately can be tested”–Mike Simms, 2016

Anyone up for digging a borehole?

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*accretionary lapilli are basically hail stones made of, well, stone. They are formed, layer upon concentric layer, in turbulent, superheated dust clouds until they fall to the ground under their own weight. Their presence is yet another illustration of just how apocalyptic the conditions must have been when the Stac Fada member was deposited.

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Walking Through Time: Scotland’s Lost Asteroid is on at 8pm, 24th September, Channel 4

Refs:

Amor, K., Hesselbo, S.P., Porcelli, D. et al., (2008). A precambrian proximal ejecta blanket from Scotland. Geology, 36 (4). Free to access here

Simms, M.J. (2015). The Stac Fada impact ejecta deposit and the Lairg Gravity Low” evidence for a buried Precambrian impact crater in Scotland? Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 126 (6). Free to access here

Reddy, S.M., Johnson, T. E., Fischer, S., Rickard, W.D.A., and Taylor, R.J.M. (2015). Precambrian reidite discovered in shocked zircon from the Stac Fada impactite, Scotland. Geology, 43 (10)

Osinski,G. R., Preston, L., Ferrière, L., Prave, T., Parnell, J., Singleton, A., and Pickersgill, A. E. (2011). THE STAC FADA “IMPACT EJECTA” LAYER: NOT WHAT IT SEEMS. 74th Annual Meteoritical Society Meeting (2011). Abstract free to access here

 

Huge thanks to:

Mike Simms, for being so bloody interesting and clever and for letting me tag along with him for a week in Assynt to make Walking Through Time and benefit from his ingenious work. And for answering even more questions for this blogpost.

Ken Amor, for telling me all about his own eureka moment in 2006, and then answering even more questions. And for being such a good sport about not being featured in the programme itself.

Tim Johnson, for letting me use his SEM images of the Stac Fada quartz grains replete with reidite, both in this blogpost and also on the programme.

Louisa Preston, for bringing her research on the Stac Fada to my attention, and for generally being awesome.

The Walking Through Time team and Rosalind support team, for making the Assynt adventure so special: Nick Clarke Powell, Cressida Kinnear, Pete Allibone, AJ Butterworth, Paul Rigby, Clare Keeley, Adrian Glover, Lilly Herridge and Adam Hayward.

Rosalind Glover, for being the most patient and adventurous of babies, enjoying nappies changes and breastfeeding in some of the most remote and beautiful places in the British Isles.

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Walking Through Time is back!

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Walking Through Time is back, and this time we got a whole series!

I spent three glorious weeks this summer filming in some of the most beautiful, and fascinating, parts of Britain. The result — thanks to the amazing production team — is three episodes that are beautiful and warm and suffused with joy, and which celebrate the incredible geology of the British Isles.

A quick summary:

Episode 1: Scotland’s Lost Asteroid 24th September, 8pm, Channel 4

An asteroid hit Britain 1.2 billion years ago — but we’ve only known this since 2008, thanks to the work of Ken Amor and colleagues… Mike Simms and I go in search of its impact crater, to find out where it hit, and just how big the asteroid was. Our quest takes us across the stunning, epic landscape of Northwest Scotland. Think white sand beaches, and soaring inselberg mountains. It is ridiculously beautiful. And I get to check out the Moine Thrust (with the brilliant Laura Hamlet), and the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph (where Dorothea Bate was supposed to excavate, but didn’t). Sharp eyes will spot a baby with her daddy and auntie in the background. And a fine glacial erratic.

Episode 2: Britain’s Last Mammoth 1st October, 8pm, Channel 4

Thirty years ago, Eve Roberts was walking her dog when she spotted some bones in a spoil heap at a gravel quarry near Shrewsbury. These turned out to be the bones of the most complete woolly mammoth skeleton ever found in Britain. Excavations turned up the remains of four more mammoths, all babies. At around 14,000 years old these are also Britain’s last mammoths, part of the population that returned to our shores after the last ice age… before going extinct. Adrian Lister and I talk mammoth extinction. Matt Pope and I talk ancient humans. Alex Liu and I talk precambrian fossils and fossilised raindrops.   Peter Toghill shows me Shropshire in its full geologically diverse glory (Britain’s most geologically diverse county). And I go up in a hot air ballon. I got married in Shropshire, and I love it. And now you will too. Plus: bonus invertebrates.

Episode 3: Jurassic Coast 8th October, 8pm, Channel 4

The Jurassic Coast needs no introduction, really. But I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more stunning shot of the Lulworth Crumple. I go from Kimmeridge Bay to Budleigh Salterton, investigating anoxia from local to global scales with Paul Wignall. I get to meet palaeontologist Simon Penn, who is rapidly becoming the heir to Steve Etches, and his gorgeous fossils. I have a cuppa with Kevan Sheehan, who discovered an incredibly complete giant Pliosaur skull at Osmington Mills (and had it named in honour of all the Kev’s in the world). Hillary Ketchum is my expert guide to that pliosaur. And Eliza Howlett and I have the most trowelblazer-tastic time talking Mary Anning and Eliza Philpott in Lyme Regis. And we have a bit of a Landmark Trust love in. Oh, and underwater robot vehicle REX returns, ably assisted by Adrian Glover and Leigh Marsh.

Do watch! And here’s hoping for a second series!

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/walking-through-time

Fieldwork, family, friendship and feeding

I’ve just returned from fieldwork at Ghar Dalam Cave, Malta. This is one of my favourite places, and I’ve been working there and collaborating with my dear friend and colleague John J. Borg for over 10 years now. What made this trip different, however, was that this time I had my four month old baby with me.

So this isn’t a post about fieldwork so much as a post about family and friendship, and how they make doing science as new mum possible. More than possible, in fact. The support I had from my husband, parents and colleagues made doing fieldwork with a baby in tow an absolute joy.

But first, the science:

Ghar Dalam (aka The Cave of Darkness) is — or rather, was — full of fossils of dwarf elephant, dwarf hippo and dwarf deer. Thousands of fossils have been excavated from here over the years, by loads of different people. You can visit the cave today as a tourist (it’s a bargain at €5), and see the fossils in the museum and the excavated trenches in the cave itself.

We are bringing modern methods to bear on the cave sediments and stalagmites, and on the fossils themselves, to find out how, when and why these island dwarfs evolved. On previous trips we collected samples for dating. This trip was all about recording the cave in detail: cleaning and drawing stratigraphical sections, identifying and surveying the historical excavation trenches, and accurately recording key features like sample locations and nearby fossils using a total station.

We had planned to do this last summer, but all the provisions needed to allow me to participate while pregnant (no heavy lifting, no clambering about over and under cave features etc) basically meant I’d be left twiddling my thumbs on the sidelines. So I had the cunning* plan of delaying until I was on maternity leave, using my ‘keeping in touch days’ to take part without violating my leave conditions. That way the project wouldn’t be delayed (especially important for our PhD student Leila D’Souza), I’d be able to hit the ground running when I returned to work (always key for a post-doc), plus we’d get to go during the low season (cheaper! quieter! cooler!).  And in my gung-ho, overconfident pre-baby mind, I thought four months old would be a great time. By then I’d have being a mum down pat, right?

**ROFLMAO**

In reality, by four months I still hadn’t had much luck with expressing breastmilk or with R taking a bottle, and after a rocky start breastfeeding the last thing I wanted to do was spend time training her to not want to nurse! On top of that, R hit the four-month clingy, sleep regression stage just as we were due to head off. My idyllic vision of R spending the day in quality bonding time with her grandparents and her daddy as they had a lovely holiday, while I worked (and pumped), crumbled. I was dreading the trip, and felt like a prize plum for having suggested it in the first place.

But then the planets came into alignment

 

 

Or rather, all the wonderful people in my life simply kept on being their usual, wonderful selves. It was only me who had imposed the stressful pumping-offsite-child-care plan. Ghar Dalam is an accessible tourist attraction. It’s a matter of minutes to leave the site, and head up the steps through the garden to John’s office. A matter of seconds to reach a bench amongst the fragrant maquise flora. Both places were perfect for feeding, and so R could simply stay nearby and be fed and cuddled whenever she needed it.

My fieldwork day unfolded like this: two good feeds for R before heading to the cave for 09:30**, made totally possible by having my husband and parents around to make me breakfast while I fed her (and abandon the dishes to them!). This gave a good two to three hour window where the grandparents got their morning fix of R, while we cracked on at the cave. My husband brought R to me around lunchtime (give or take), and I sat in the dappled sun feeding her to the sound of bird song while he did a pastizzi run, and the team all stopped for lunch. Then back to the cave for more work, while my husband looked after R for the afternoon. I could hear them cooing to each other, and reading books, as I drew up sections and contemplated contacts. Or silence would fall, and I’d know she was napping in the sling cuddled close to her daddy. It was lovely. We’d finish up for the day around 16:30 in time for R’s next feed, head home to shower and hear about my parent’s afternoon of sight-seeing (they LOVED Malta’s rich history & prehistory), before meeting up with the rest of the team for dinner. R came too, of course!

So while, yes, I got less done than usual as having to break for 40 minutes every 2-3 hours will have it’s impact, and I wasn’t able to work in the evenings as I normally would, the trip was a great success. I used my breastfeeding breaks to do a spot of bonus scicomm on twitter (check out the #IceAgeMalta hashtag), chatting with tourists as they came by and asked about our work, or to email & chat with project members who were back in Britain. Or I simply looked down in awe at my miracle daughter, and let that fierce heart-clenching love wash over me.

I had, quite simply, a wonderful time. And I think everyone else did too. And we got all of our work done, thanks to the efforts of our superb team.

Here’s why it worked out so well: privilege. I am privileged to have supportive colleagues who are also friends, who were totally behind the plan to bring the family along and who never once made me feel they begrudged R’s presence (or the time I gave her). I am privileged to have a partner who was willing (and able, thanks to generous annual leave) to take time off work to take on the bulk of the daytime childcare. I am privileged to be wealthy enough (and have parents who are wealthy enough) to cover the flights and accommodation costs of my family fieldwork entourage.

With the right support, anything is possible... Feeding R in the cave, while giving instructions!

With the right support, anything is possible… Feeding R in the cave, while giving instructions!

The lesson here is that with a bit of child-care support in place, and flexible attitudes, anything really is possible. If we freed up funds for this, it wouldn’t just be for the privileged few.

In the meantime, thank you to my fieldwork family: Adrian Glover, Julie & Ray Herridge, Adrian Lister, Leila D’Souza, Chris Standish, Neil Adams, Maggie Johansen, and Suzie Pilaar Birch.

 

*not so very cunning. If I’d waited til my 6 months paid leave was up, I’d’ve got paid for my KIT days!

**another thing that helped make this trip a success is that the working day was constrained by the cave’s opening hours — unusually civilised!

I was inspired to write this post after reading Bethan Davie’s blogpost on fieldwork while pregnant. You should check that out too, and share your own experiences on the comment threads there and here!

My Natural History Hero Dorothea Bate

**UPDATE: you can now listen to the programme online here**

The BBC have very wisely decided to make a programme all about one of my favourite scientists, Dorothea Bate. It’s only 15 minutes long, mind, which means it can only scrape the surface. But I get to wax lyrical about her, and how she has directly influenced my work, and how I’ve been able to follow in her footsteps – literally. And even better, her biographer Karolyn Shindler, is involved so the historical content should be top notch.

Pouring over Dorothea Bate's maps and diaries from her expedition to Crete in 1904. These are now stored in the Natural History Museum's archives. Clockwise from bottom right: me, Adrian Lister, David Richards, Kirsty Penkman

Pouring over Dorothea Bate’s maps and diaries from her expedition to Crete in 1904. These are now stored in the Natural History Museum’s archives. Clockwise from bottom right: me, Adrian Lister, David Richards, Kirsty Penkman

It’s on at 13:45 on the 30th September on Radio 4, and is one of the 10 programmes in the Natural History Heroes series running on BBC Radio 4 from the 28th September. **UPDATE: Listen online & read more about the programme here**

George Iliopoulos and I hunting for Kutri Cave, in Crete, where Dorothea Bate found fossils of dwarf deer. Imagine doing this in Edwardian dress! Photo (c) David Richards.

George Iliopoulos and I hunting for Kutri Cave, in Crete, where Dorothea Bate found fossils of dwarf deer. Imagine doing this in Edwardian dress! Photo (c) David Richards.

In the meantime, here is a short youtube video about my research on the world’s smallest mammoth here (with nice shots of the fossils and the ‘beastly hot’ trip to Cape Maleka):

And here are two posts I wrote about Dorothea Bate for TrowelBlazers:

The Dynamite Discoveries of Dorothea Bate — yes, she really did use dynamite. I wish she had used less.

Dorothea Bate & the Star(key) of Bethlehem — Dorothea’s excavations in Bethlehem in the 1930s, and how she was royally screwed over (technical term) by James Starkey.

But really, the best place to start for a proper Dorothea Bate-fest is with Karolyn Shindler’s excellent biography Discovering Dorothea. Criminally it is out of print, but you can still buy a second hand copy. PUBLISHERS!  It is time for an updated edition!

Natural History Heroes: Dorothea Bate will be broadcast at 13:45 on the 30th September on BBC Radio 4. Details here

Book Review: How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro

(c) Princeton University Press. Source

Early on in How to Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro warns the reader against making emotional decisions over whether extinct species should be brought back to life. Informed decisions, she cautions, are key when considering de-extinction. I’ve never understood why these two things should be mutually exclusive and I suspect that deep down Shapiro doesn’t either, because How to Clone a Mammoth is a very personal manifesto for de-extinction where her (informed) emotions are apparent, and therein lies its power.

For example, Beth Shapiro doesn’t care that the genetically modified facsimile of a passenger pigeon that her lab is trying to create is not, and never will be, the real thing. She does care, however, how genetically engineered elephants might transform the Siberian tundra, were they allowed to graze and trample and – importantly – defecate there. George Church, powerhouse of genomics research, we learn, is one of her favourite scientists. Shapiro’s thoughts and feelings are ever-present in this breezy introduction to de-extinction science, and the reader is welcomed in on first name terms with Stewart (Brand), George (Church), and Sergey (Zimov) and the scions of the de-extinction effort. She hovers on just the right side of an undergraduate introductory lecture: never exhilarating, but always warm and accessible. Shapiro’s informal approach, peppered with dead-pan asides, is a welcome change from the hyperbole and grandstanding that has come to characterize popular debates on rewilding and de-extinction, and mammoth cloning in particular.

Shapiro has a few bones to pick with the media about that, and their mammoth cloning obsession in particular. Her world-weary eye rolls and sarcastic asides, are the standard – almost expected – response among us scientists suffering from ‘mammoth cloning fatigue’. But it’s important to remember that mammoth cloning is newsworthy, in a way that the minutiae of many other de-extinction projects are not, because it fires the imagination. The thought of bringing back a magnificent creature from distant times, that for many straddles the line between real and imaginary, that filled the stories and picture books of our childhoods, and that we thought was lost to us forever, moves people. Even those who aren’t particularly interested in science will talk about mammoth cloning down the pub. My hairdresser, who told me she never watches documentaries, turned over from the X-Factor to watch Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy because of the tantalizing promise of mammoth cloning. I’ve even had to answer questions about mammoth cloning during a pelvic exam. That was… awkward.

In all of my discussions with people who aren’t already engaged with the idea of de-extinction, when I tell them that we’ll never actually bring back the woolly mammoth, and that instead they’ll get an Asian elephant which has been genetically modified to have some mammoth features — like a thick woolly coat, and red blood cells that are better able to take up oxygen at cold temperatures – they are invariably disappointed, and whole lot less interested. Authenticity, restoration and turning back the clock are hugely important to people. Beth Shapiro might not care that a GMO band-tailed pigeon is not actually a passenger pigeon, or that a GMO Asian elephant is not a woolly mammoth, but others do.

De-extinction and rewilding proponents surely understand this, even while distancing themselves from the idea. It runs through the very language they have chosen to use. Revive, restore, rewild: all invoke a return to something that once was, rather than the creation of something new and synthetic. De-extinct and un-extinct are both explicitly about undoing extinction, rather than the novelty of creation. Words have power, and it’s more than just semantics when you call yourself a ‘mammoth revivalist’ as George Church’s lab do, or decide to use ‘mammoth’ or ‘passenger pigeon’ as short-hand for ‘genetically modified version of their nearest living relative’ as Shapiro does. It’s more than convenience, it’s a PR masterstroke.

Invoking this emotional tug on the one hand, while dismissing its value on the other, risks muddling the message and is also complicit in every eyeroll-inducing mammoth cloning headline that follows.

I also think the emotions inherent in this language motivates de-extinction scientists more than they are prepared to admit. I don’t think focusing research efforts on the ‘mammoth’ or the ‘passenger pigeon’ is an purely pragmatic, informed decision reflecting the best, most useful candidates for de-extinction: Sergey Zimov, Shapiro tells us, would prefer woolly rhinos. Justifications for mammoth de-extinction have shifted over the years from righting a wrong (human caused extinction), to restoring a lost ecosystem, to restoring this ecosystem to mitigate climate change, to – most recently – the best way to preserve elephant genetic diversity for posterity. All of which may be true, though this last justification is really a last-ditch, better-than-nothing idea and ignores the ecosystem-driven argument for de-extinction made so clearly by Shapiro. Is salvaging the gene pool of the Asian elephant while its habitat is lost a worthwhile effort? Additionally, and maybe ultimately, ‘mammoths’ are being worked on because mammoths are magnificent and many of us, de-extinction scientists included, pine for them.

The idea of generating new types of animals, and new types of ecosystems, from new technologies is exhilarating. Most of my objections to mammoth cloning efforts are related to animal welfare: experimentation on elephant surrogate mothers, and the manifold problems elephants suffer in captivity. Some of the most mind-blowing bits of How to Clone a Mammoth were the fleeting references to transplanting elephant ovarian tissue into mice to produce elephant eggs, and the possibility of artificial wombs. I wanted so much more on this, and the synthetic biology technologies that Shapiro and colleagues are using to drive the field forward. Shapiro’s optimism that these technologies will sweep aside so many of the obstacles to ethical de-extinction is infectious, and she made me – a sceptic – want to believe that a cold-tolerant, woolly elephant is both inevitable and the right thing to do. But the science lacked the depth needed to convince me. A herd of GMO elephants wont be trampling the tundra any time soon, unless a research team (it wont be Shapiro’s. She cares about elephant welfare) ignores their ethical responsibilities regarding animal experimentation. That’s why we have to be aware of the motivations — emotional and informed — that drive interest in reviving the woolly mammoth, and how our choice of language helps to sustain flawed cloning programs alongside media coverage. It’s time for a bigger, public conversation. The open-hearted simplicity of How to Clone a Mammoth makes a great entry point for people who want to join in.

Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth is published by Princeton University Press

This is an unexpurgated version of a piece that first appeared in the Literary Review. Can you guess what bit they cut? #overshare

You can read some of my opinions on the ethics of mammoth cloning and GMO arctic elephants here; and a follow-up post here

Woman in Time

Celebrating Jacquetta Hawkes

Woman in Time

Waterstones Bradford, 18 March 2015, 7-8 pm

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Join Tori Herridge and me (Alison Cullingford) for Woman in Time, an exploration of humanity from its earliest days through to the turbulent middle years of the 20th Century.  We use poetry and spoken word performance to tell stories of three women. One of these women died, one went on to great things, and one disappeared.  Their lives intersected on one day 80 years ago …

Part of British Science Week.  Find out more on their website and register via eventbrite here.

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Volunteer with me at the Natural History Museum

I’m recruiting a volunteer to work with me at the Natural History Museum, 1 day a week (preferably wednesday) for approximately 4 months, to help piece together the excavation history of Ghar Dalam Cave in Malta (a key site for Pleistocene insular dwarf elephants, hippo and deer). It would suit someone with an interest in palaeontology and evolution, and also an interest in the history of science. You must be able to read and interpret maps and diagrams of stratigraphical sections.
Applications & enquiries must be made via the NHM recruitment system. To apply, follow this link [NHM Jobs], and then select ‘Cave of Darkness’ for my project.

Ghar Dalam Cave volunteer details

Woman In Time — my contribution to British Science Week!

If you’re in, or around, or indeed willing to travel to Bradford on the 18th March, come to Waterstones Bradford in the beautiful Wool Exchange to hear Alison Cullingford and me tell the story of three women: British archaeologist, poet and CND founder Jacquetta Hawkes, Palestinian archaeologist Yusra, and the neanderthal woman known as Tabun 1.

The event is completely free**, but you do need to book tickets so that we can let Waterstones know the numbers.

More about the event, and tickets, see: http://woman-in-time.eventbrite.com

With huge thanks to the British Science Association, who granted TrowelBlazers a £500 Community Grant to develop and put on this event.

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**John Ruskin said that the Bradford Wool Exchange “…represented the worst form of exploitative capitalism.” Hopefully he’d approve of our non-profit use of the space 150 years later… 😉