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

The ethics of mammoth cloning: UPDATED

I wrote about the ethics of mammoth cloning for the Guardian’s Comment is Free pages. You can read what I think here.

A quick update: Although in this interview with the Naked Scientists, George Church directly discusses elephant surrogates, I’ve just heard on the grapevine that he now intends to only use artificial wombs. I’ve emailed him to find out if this is true. Will update as soon as he answers.

In the mean time, I’ve asked the editors to add in a ‘probably’ to add some necessary ambiguity over the use of Asian elephant surrogates.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Would I want to see a cold-adapted Asian elephant in Siberia if no animals were involved in the experimentation? It raises a different set of ethical questions, and I’m still thinking about it.

But one thing it doesn’t change is my scepticism over this plan of action as a feasible tool to mitigate climate change. Artificial womb technology seems a long way off, extending the timescale over which we can expect to see a viable cold-adapted Asian elephant in the world.

Even *if* the reintroduction of cold-adapted Asian elephants could do what its proponents hope — and we don’t know that it will — the time taken to genetically engineer, and artificially gestate elephants in the numbers that would be required is going to be considerable. And I doubt we have that kind of time when it comes to climate change. I’d like to see some well-thought out data and modelling on this, rather than romantic daydreams.


George Church kindly and very patiently replied to my questions. What follows is some incredibly mind-blowing science and a number of extremely good points. I’m digesting them still, and I’ll leave you to make up your own mind…

The answer to your question is: Yes.  Someone may use a surrogate elephant mother, if the chances of success are high and the expected benefits for the species survival/diversity are high (for example, due to extended geographical range).  My group will be working hard on alternatives, but it would be premature to guess at the exact state of rapidly progressing reproductive technologies years in the future. 

Getting full mammalian development to work in vitro is important for may reasons (testing hypotheses, testing drugs, tissue, transplantation, developmental biology, etc.)  Most vertebrates develop outside of a parental body.  For mammals, there are at least two options: 1) running blood directly through an umbilicus or 2) running blood through a placental interface.  We just published some relevant new technologies: 1) CRISPR activators which allow epigenetic reprogramming  and 2) in situ sequencing which allows analysis such reprogramming for closeness of fit to natural equivalents, 3) CellNet software to decide on multiple regulatory adjustments.  Automation allows us to optimize numerous parameters simultaneously.  It is hard to estimate how long this will take, but we have been pleasantly surprised few times recently, with technology arriving far sooner and better than expected (e.g. next-gen sequencing and CRISPR).

“You and I seem well aligned on this [GC is referring to my op-ed CiF piece]. I would certainly prefer to not interfere with Asian elephant healthcare, except positively.   My lab’s success already in using CRISPR on Loxodonta fibroblasts has not hurt elephants and hopefully will help in understanding their biology.  The costs and quality are improving rapidly since the protocols are being debugged in the context of experiments focused on human and mouse.  We are exploring methods to go from mammalian stems cells to embryos to babies, with inexpensive automated processes and high efficiency. If this works for mouse and pigs, then similar endeavors could be made for elephants.  This should help (rather than hurt) reproductive efforts for these precious species.  If we are successful in making cold-resistant versions of Asian elephants, then that might further help conservation efforts by allowing them to occupy locations with very low human population density and abundant vegetation.

“[I say in my CiF piece] ‘making a genetically engineered elephant that can handle the cold – this just isn’t as emotionally satisfying as … taking an actual mammoth cell nucleus’.  But, neither route is the “real thing”.  The frozen nuclei have been lethally irradiated for 10,000 years — broken to tiny pieces, while the synthetic DNA is unbroken and hence more like “real” Mammoth DNA.  If we are face-to-face with an animal containing such DNA and that looks like Mammoth and thrives at -50 degrees, I’d be surprised if we would be emotionally unmoved.”




**George Church is interviewed quite extensively in Woolly Mammoth: the Autopsy, so well worth watching to hear what he has to say on the matter: 8pm, 23rd November on Channel 4**



Shiny new website for TrowelBlazers —!

Check out the new and, if I do say so myself, absolutely gorgeous internet home of TrowelBlazers:

Thanks to Neil Monteiro, who did the web-design. My absolute favourite thing so far is how the circles in the homepage banner change with every page refresh. Most addictive…

*clicks refresh repeatedly*

[if you’re trying to click on — or refresh — the circles here, I’m afraid the picture up top is just a screen grab — you’ll have to go to instead!]

Rodents of Unusual Size…?


Rodents of Unusual Size? I don’t believe they exist*… At least, not in the way that some media outlets would have you think. Last week journalists reported A LOT on the possibility of giant sheep-sized rats evolving in the future. See herehere and depressingly** also here.

I was asked for comment by the BBC a couple of of times — the first time I refused as I was busy (I had 30 mins notice and at that point I had no idea what the story was about). Plus, it sounded like a tabloidy link-bait story where I would find it hard to get a complicated point across if the angle had already been established as ZOMG EVIL KILLER GIANT RATS OF THE FUTURE.

However, afterwards the guilt got to me. Surely this is *exactly* when I should be joining in the discussion & trying to improve the quality of coverage?

So when the next request came through I decided to make the time for the journalist’s questions. They were hard to answer in a way which satisfied me, as they felt like they were pushing me to provide quotes that would still miss what I felt was the fundamental point of the R.O.U.S. story: the impact of the Anthropocene, especially on biodiversity.

As Henry Nicholls blogged (thank you Henry!): the mass extinction crisis we are facing in the Anthropocene is no laughing matter.

As I have no idea if any of what I wrote will even be used, The BBC used some of my replies in this article. I thought I’d pop up my full reply here (typos included) so this effort actually goes *somewhere*. It’s one of the many examples of the ‘hidden service’ that researchers do for free all the time.


An imagined giant rodent of the future, from the Gallery of Evolution at the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences. Copyright RBINS. Thanks to Mark Carnall of the Grant Museum for bringing this to my attention.

* This, by the way, is a Princess Bride quote. Rodents of unusual size do indeed exist, and even larger ones have existed. Evolution is amazing like that.

** to clarify why I find this depressing, it is because of the focus on the giant rat aspect, rather than the broader topic of which species will be ‘ future ancestors’ (which is also an important story about which species are going extinct right now) and how they will give rise to many different sizes, and differently adapted descendents. This gets a brief mention, leaving the overwhelming impression that sheep-sized rats is all the future holds…

Dear [BBC journalist],

The museum press office passed on your questions to me. To give you some background to my expetise, my research investigates the evolution of dwarf elephants (now extinct) that used live on islands like Sicily, Malta, Cyprus and Crete (e.g. see here). Interestingly, on islands while large mammals such as elephants and hippos evolve to become smaller (1m-tall adult elephants!), small mammals like rodents evolve to become bigger. But no island rat has approached anywhere near the size of a sheep.

The sort of evolution scenarios that Dr Zalasiewicz is speculating about would occur over huge swathes of time – tens of millions of years. Those sorts of timescales would allow for a myriad of wondrous forms to evolve: just look at the enormous diversity of the mammals that have evolved in the last 65 million years. I only have the University of Leicester press release to go on, but it seems to me that Dr Zalasiewicz has set up an interesting thought experiment, but one that is quite specific in its scenario and doesn’t lend itself to the broader Qs you have asked. Hence my answers wont fit perfectly with your questions I’m afraid.

Q8: Is there anything else he/she would like to add on the subject? 

It’s really fun to speculate about what the distant future might hold for the evolution of life on earth – the possibilities are endless. But we know from the fossil record that it takes, on average, ten MILLION years for life on Earth to bounce back from a mass extinction event. So while it is fun to think about the wondrous new forms that might arise, it is far more chilling to think of the species we are losing right now, and how long it will take to replace them. Certainly, given the average duration of a species, no human would get to see this imagined future ecosystem.

Q1: If certain animals went extinct because of climate change, would the evolutionary principle of niche-filling really extend to just one taxon?

Q2: Or would it be more wide spread with lots of other animals rushing to fill the space? (like after the KT extinction)

Only if all species bar one went extinct. Any species surviving an extinction event may eventually evolve to fill empty ecological niches. So the question is really “Which species are currently the most vulnerable to extinction” (because we’re set to lose those) and “which species are not at risk at all” (because that what will be left for natural selection to work on, the ancestral species of the future).

Q3: Would rats really be the ideal candidates for the taxa that would fill any ecological gaps?

Certain rat species, like the brown rat Rattus norvegicus, have a large, globally distributed population, and so are very far from extinction right now. The brown rat is also a generalist, flexible in its diet and ability to live in different environments – factors key to its success as an invasive species across the world.


Q4: or is their current niche too much of a success for them to need to adapt?

The crux of this question is time: in the very short-term, as we are seeing with invasive rat species today, rats are able to spread into unoccupied niches because they are generalists. Once in a new niche, natural selection continues to act – hence on islands, rats tend to evolve to be come a little bit larger. This might occur over hundreds to thousands of years. But when you zoom out to 100 million years in the future, we aren’t just talking about evolutionary changes in the rat – but the whole environment, throwing up new challenges the whole time. Continental drift; new mountain ranges; significant changes in climate; unpredictable catastrophic events like a meteor hit. And set against all this a continuous, complex evolutionary interplay between individuals competing for space to live, eat and breed. This is what Dr Zalasiewicz is talking about – but when you get to this stage, it makes no sense to call that theoretical sheep-sized animal of the future a ‘rat’ at all. It may have had a rat as an ancestor, but it will be something totally new, in a different ecological niche.

Q5: As global warming continues would an increase in global temperatures (and CO2) due to climate change result in animals getting bigger?

Q6: or would animals actually be likely to get smaller?

It’s impossible to generalise in such a way: What animals? Where? Over what timescales?

The size of an animal affects everything about it – where it can live, how it moves, what it can eat, how many offspring it can have, and how fast it can have them. This means that the size of an animal is a trade-off between all these things, and will evolve to best fit the ecological niche available to it.


Q7: Apart from the famous KT extinction, are there other examples of certain species/ groups filling an ecological niche after an extinction event?

Many. For example, the biggest mass-extinction event – the Permo-Triassic extinction, or the “Great Dying”, approx 250 million years ago – killed up to 97% of all life on Earth. It took up to 20 million years for life to recover in terms of species number and diversity – on land, some of the groups that were very successful were the Archosaurs, a group which includes the dinosaurs (including birds!) and crocodiles. The dinosaurs would go on to to diversify into a wide range of ecolgical niches.

From the First Female Oxbridge Prof to Kevin Bacon in Just Six Steps…

[This post first appeared on the WISR blog]

Dorothy Garrod was the first woman to be made an Oxbridge professor. In 1939 she was elected to the Disney Chair in Archaeology at Cambridge University. At that time women were still not allowed to graduate from Cambridge on an equal footing with men, and as such could not vote on university matters, nor serve on the University’s governing council. As a Professor, however, Garrod now had this right. Through the power of her brilliant, world-renowned research, Dorothy Garrod had stormed this last bastion of male academia, nearly ten full years before it was officially ready for her. BOOM!

The myth of the lone hero

It’s pretty easy to make a hero out of Garrod. Her work really was brilliant. She really was a pioneer, leading large excavation projects in the Middle East. And as the first female Oxbridge professor, she paved the way for many more talented women to follow in her footsteps. Add to this contemporary descriptions of her as being “small, dark and alive,” and “like a dry white wine”, and the most beguiling narrative emerges of this tiny, crisp woman – armed only with her mind – taking on the pipes and the port of the male establishment, and succeeding against the odds.

Image of Dorothy Garrod from Newnham College, Cambridge:

Image of Dorothy Garrod from Newnham College, Cambridge.

The problem is that framing Dorothy Garrod’s achievements in this way probably says more about us, and the heroes we want, than the reality. And by ignoring the reality, we risk never truly understanding why women like Garrod came to succeed and what this might mean for diversity issues that persist in science to this day.

You see, Garrod’s uniqueness as an Oxbridge professor obscures the – perhaps even more surprising – fact that she was very much not unique as a brilliant, respected woman archaeologist in the early twentieth century. Another woman, and friend of Garrod, Gertrude Caton-Thompson had been tipped for (and possibly even offered) the Disney Chair. And Garrod’s career up to 1939 had been characterised by collaborations with other women, most famously at her all-women excavations at the palaeolithic site of Mount Carmel, in Palestine (1929-1934). On top of this, Garrod was a Newnham College fellow – she had been an undergraduate there herself before the first world war, overlapping with the classical scholar Winifred Lamb (later keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum), and geologist Elinor Gardner (who became a great friend and collaborator of Gertrude Caton-Thompson, and also went on to work with Garrod). At Newnham, Dorothy Garrod was both part of a community of academic women, and was responsible for training up future generations of the same. She was a key hub in a network of pioneering women archaeologists. 

This is where Kevin Bacon comes in. Linking Garrod to Bacon in six steps is more than just a very niche party trick. It provides a window into the large and complex web of connections that existed between early twentieth-century women archaeologists: women who trained each other, collaborated with each other, secured funding and jobs for each other, and who offered each other support, friendship and competition (friendly or otherwise).

Six Degrees of Dorothy Garrod


Archaeology is a young science. In 1922, when Dorothy Garrod wrote the book that launched her career (The Upper Palaeolithic Age in Britain, published 1926), there were just 24 professional archaeologists in the UK. In such a small field, an individual can make a large impact – and Garrod’s meticulous, comprehensive work did just that. She combined many lines of evidence to integrate the early British Stone Age with that of continental Europe. One of these lines of evidence was a study of the animal remains found at palaeolithic (“old stone age”) sites – and to do this she was helped by the fossil mammal expert at the Natural History Museum: Dorothea Bate. Bate and Garrod would go on to collaborate repeatedly throughout their careers.


When Dorothea Bate met Dorothy Garrod she had over 20 years of research experience, and was a well-respected – if poorly paid – scientist. It was on one of her early expeditions, to Crete in 1904, that she met and befriended American archaeologist Edith Hall (later Hall Dohan). Hall was on her first excavation, digging at the Minoan town of Gournia under the direction of yet another pioneering woman archaeologist: Harriet Boyd, the first woman to direct an excavation in Greece. Edith Hall went on to a successful academic career, eventually returning to her alma mater Bryn Mawr to teach in 1921. There she trained up a new generation of classical archaeologists.


Dorothy Burr Thompson studied under Edith Hall Dohan at Bryn Mawr, and like Hall Dohan (and Harriet Boyd) before her, went on to be a fellow at the American School in Athens (1923-5). There she excavated extensively, under the direction of Hetty Goldman (another woman!). In 1934 Burr Thompson became the first woman to be appointed a fellow of the excavations at the Ancient Agora in Athens. She continued to be part of the Agora excavation project into the late 1970s.


In 1975-6, Joan Breton Connelly – then an undergraduate at Princeton; now Professor of Classics and Art History at NYU – worked as Dorothy Burr Thompson’s assistant at the Athenian Agora. This was Breton Connelly’s first excavation experience; she went on to be the director of the Yeronisos Island Excavation, in Cyprus.


Yes. The actor Bill Murray has a secret alter ego as an archaeologist. He was one of the philanthropic donor-excavators at the Yeronisos Island Excavations. And, of course, Bill Murray appeared in Wild Things with Kevin Bacon.

So there you go: Dorothy Garrod to Kevin Bacon in six steps, four of which were through women archaeologists, taking in a century of archaeological research in the Mediterranean.

Six Degrees – So What?

These connections only scrape the surface of the number of women working in archaeology from its inception. It would take hundreds of thousands of words to capture their achievements adequately – but it only takes a look at my network figure above to immediately grasp the scope of the number of stories still untold.

This figure came out of research for a chapter that TrowelBlazers has contributed to the Finding Ada book A Passion for Science. TrowelBlazers – a blog celebrating the contribution of women to archaeology, palaeontology and geology – was born out of righteous indignation that so many women, and their aggregate contribution to research, had been forgotten: one or two women being written out of (popular) history can potentially be dismissed as the chance loss of a rare thing, hundreds cannot.

These pioneering women did face prejudice, and they defied social convention. They had to carve out a niche for themselves, but they weren’t alone: when they weren’t allowed to study alongside men, they started their own colleges; when they weren’t allowed to dig with men, they started their own excavations. And wealth, privilege and connections gave them the power to achieve these things. In doing, they opened up opportunities for other women, and created a critical mass of women – doing top-quality research – who could have a real influence and power in a young discipline.

Today, women hold 46% of UK academic posts in archaeology. In contrast, in the biological, mathematical and physical sciences this figure is just 28%. Could this be a legacy of these early collaborative networks? If so it highlights the importance of social networks, and the emotional, practical and political support they offer, in effecting demographic change.

[You can download a full-resolution version of my Very Incomplete Network of TrowelBlazers from Figshare. Plus citation details are there.]

TrowelBlazers is Launched!

It’s easy to imagine the academic world at the turn of the 20th Century, right? A world closed to all but the most privileged of men – whiskered gentlemen in stiff suits, pipe smoke and port, explorers with a whiff of pith helmet about them.

Imagine, then, arriving on the island of Crete in 1904 to find not one bold, brave young woman researcher digging up the past – but four: Harriet Boyd, Blanche Wheeler, Edith Hall and Dorothea Bate.

Or the Arabian Desert in 1900, where that striking figure riding towards you, headscarf billowing, at the head of a caravan of camels is not Lawrence of Arabia – he was barely out of short trousers then – but Gertrude Bell.

Try archaeology* in the interwar years, then. In our popular imaginations this is proper Indiana Jones territory. But in 1929, on the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, Dorothy Garrod was leading an excavation team of five women. Over the next five years, in caves dotting the steep-sided cliffs of Mount Carmel, Garrod’s team would uncover remarkable remains of Neandertals and some of earliest evidence for modern humans outside of Africa.

There were many, many women archaeologists, palaeontologist and geologists in the 19th and early 20th Century who were well known and respected – then – for their work and achievements. Now, however, they have been forgotten. This isn’t totally surprising – after all, how many men from those fields are household names? But it’s more than just forgetting a name or six; we’ve failed to retain the idea that women like these formed a significant – if under-represented and often resented – part of the cultural and academic landscape. We’ve allowed them to slip from our popular consciousness.

It’s a cautionary tale.

Fast forward to today. Women are a significant, but under-represented, part of the cultural and academic landscape (sound familiar?). Like our predecessors, we face institutionalized prejudice and inequality, even if our individual work is respected. In fifty or a hundred years time, will our existence and contributions have made as small a dent on people’s imaginations as the women of yesteryear?

Not if we can help it! On Friday we launched the TrowelBlazers tumblr blog** to carve out more space on the Internet for the story of women’s contributions, past and present, to the fields of archaeology, palaeontology and geology (authors note: we aren’t above a spot of land grabbing, and given field-boundaries are a tad blurry and multi-disciplinary study common, we will also be featuring women geographers, explorers and anthropologists).

By scouring the Internet and beyond for images and videos, and posting them alongside short, readable snippets of information, we want to reset people’s imaginations. As the blog grows, we hope that the volume of entries – as much as the individual stories – will be its own powerful testament to just how significant these women were, and continue to be.

Because it isn’t just the derring-do of pioneer-era women we are interested in, we want to celebrate the full diversity of trowel-blazing women working today, from all backgrounds and from all parts of the world. On top of this, we want to highlight the networks of women that have worked together over the years – something often lost in heroic tales of success against the odds, where women are inevitably framed by a world of men.

It’s quite an agenda we’ve set ourselves, and we need help building up this picture. We aren’t historians of science – we are learning too – and we know that we haven’t even scraped the surface of the awesomeness of these trowel-wielding women (even if we are quite proud of our spreadsheet with nearly one hundred women on it already). Anyone can submit a post to our blog, or join in the conversation on Twitter and Facebook. Together, we can showcase the aggregate contribution of these trowel blazers.

One exception to the rule can be dismissed, many exceptions cannot. In essence, that is the spirit of TrowelBlazers, served up with a dash of ancient wonder, a sprinkling of adventure and – of course – buckets of mud and sweat.

TrowelBlazers is run by Victoria Herridge (@ToriHerridge), Suzanne Pilaar Birch (@suzie_birch), Rebecca Wragg Sykes (@LeMoustier) and Brenna Hassett (@brennawalks). They all also tweet at @trowelblazers.

* Yes, archaeology is a science (some bits more than others), but we are interested in women beyond the realms of science as well.

** in May 2014 we moved to our new internet home,



A Who’s Hugh of Aberdonian Science…

[this post first appeared on the British Science Festival Blog]

What do you get if you put Aberdeen, the British Science Festival, and dwarf elephants together? Isn’t it obvious? Hugh Falconer.

What do you mean you’ve never heard of Hugh Falconer? The man who was instrumental in introducing tea plantations to India? The man who, in 1842, brought back five tons of fossil bones to the UK from Pakistan and India, fossils which would eventually form a core part of the Natural History Museum’s collections? The man who Stephen J. Gould claimed was the first scientist to anticipate the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium? Not ringing any bells? Poor Hugh Falconer – one of the most respected scientists of his day, but now he is largely forgotten.”

Well this year, at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen, it is time to remember him. Not only did Falconer began his academic career studying Natural History at the University of Aberdeen (class of 1826), but this year is also the 150thanniversary of the first-ever scientific description of a species of dwarf elephant. Guess who described it? Yep – Hugh Falconer, and he did so at the 1862 Annual Meeting of the British Association of Advancement of Science, the forerunner of today’s British Science Festival.

As if that wasn’t coincidence enough, I am bringing dwarf elephants (or, at least, their fossilised remains) to the Festival, just like Falconer did back in 1862, to talk about their evolution and what we have – and haven’t – learnt in the last 150 years.

Falconer’s dwarf elephant fossils, which he called Elephas melitensis, were from Malta. Other dwarf elephant species (all sadly extinct) have since been discovered on Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, Cyprus and many of the small Greek islands (like Rhodes and Tilos), as well as on the Californian Channel islands and on Wrangel Island in northeast Siberia. They are an example of the phenomenon known as the ‘Island Rule’, where big animals evolve to get smaller, and small animals evolve to get bigger.

Descended from a 4m-tall, 10-ton extinct species of elephant known as the straight-tusked elephant, Falconer’s elephant would have stood just one metre tall as an adult, the size of a newborn African elephant today. Living alongside it on Malta were a giant dormouse, and a giant swan that probably topped the little elephant in height (the swan, that is – the thought of this, I must admit, scares me slightly). I’m interested in understanding how and why elephants evolved to be smaller on islands, and to help do this I am gathering evidence to find out how old the fossils are. We think most of the Mediterranean dwarf elephants lived sometime between 800,000 and 10,000 years ago, but we lack more exact dates for each species. Once I have this information, I’ll be able to place the dwarf elephant fossils into the context of the climate changes of the past, and see whether these were important to their evolution and extinction.

There’s good reason to suspect climate change might have been important, because these dwarf elephants mostly evolved during a period characterised by big climate fluctuations, with warm stages (like today) switching to ice ages, or ‘glacials’, every 100,000 years. Glacial climate, as Hugh Falconer wrote to Charles Darwin (in September 1862, in fact), was “. . . no joke: it would have made ducks and drakes of your dear pigeons and doves”, but for islands it had another significant effect: the sea level would drop as water became frozen at the poles, opening up routes to islands, and increasing their size. With the converse being true of warm stages, it is immediately apparent that the island environments, and the species living on them, could have been affected by these fluctuating climate changes. In my talk at this year’s Festival, I will be exploring this further, with some help from the audience.

There wont be much room for Hugh Falconer in my talk, but it’s his work from 150 years ago which underpins it. So if you’re in Aberdeen this September, please do spare a thought for the boy from Forres who became a man of science in Aberdeen and did so much more for science than just describe a species of dwarf elephant. File him in your mind alongside Darwin, Hooker, Huxley, Lyell and Owen – he managed to fight with them all at one time or another – and think of him each time you have a cup of tea. And if you can spare the time either side of the Festival, go to the Falconer Museum in Forres to find out more. It’s only a couple of hours up the road, after all.

Image Credit: Hugh Falconer (seated) with a very dapper William Pengelly in front of Kents Cavern in Torquay (an important fossil mammal locality), April 1858. Copyright: Forres Museum.

Hunting for Hugh Falconer’s notebooks in Forres…

Hugh Falconer was the first person to describe a dwarf elephant (150 years ago, in 1862). He was pretty terrible at publishing however, and this is making my work on sorting out the messy state of Sicilian and Maltese dwarf elephant taxonomy rather tricky.

After his death, his friends turned his notes and letters into a book as a way to make up for his lack of lifetime publication. It ran to two thick volumes! There must have been a huge pile of papers and notebooks – but the originals seems to be lost. I went to the Falconer Museum in Forres to see if anything was hiding in the archives.

Forres, by the way, is better known for its association with Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Duncan’s castle was in Forres, and the three witches toiled and troubled thereabouts. Judging by the witches stone on my walk to the museum, they’d have met a sorry end had the locals got hold of them.

Witches Stone, Forres. Inscription reads: ‘From Cluny Hill witches were rolled in stout barrels through which spikes were driven. Where the barrel stopped they were burned with their mangled contents. This stone marks the spot of one such burning.’ Nice.

I didn’t find the note books, but I did get to see some other rather wonderful things that really brought Hugh F to life for me, in all his larger-than-life glory. He sounded like he was a lot of fun, rather infuriating at times, but loyal and loving (if a little unreliable!)…

If anyone has any thoughts as to the whereabouts of Hugh’s notes, do let me know. I’ve checked with the archives of George Busk (his great friend) and Charles Murchison (who edited the Memoirs and Notes of HF), and looked in the NHM archives. I’ve also asked at Edinburgh and Aberdeen university, and the Linnean Society. Some letters survive in the Darwin archive (they are very poignant… poor Hugh seems to have waited in rather wistfully for Charles D to visit, only to be continually disappointed), but otherwise I’m at a dead-end.

Anyway – a few treats from Hugh Falconer’s archive, courtesy of the Falconer Museum in Forres (which you should visit if ever you’re in Scotland). All photos are (c) Forres Museum.

HF survives an incident at the Geological Society, thanks to his hat. Letter to his niece Grace.

HF survives an incident at the Geological Society, thanks to his hat. Letter to his niece Grace.


HF identifies with a hippopotamus.

San Ciro Cave, in Sicily.

San Ciro Cave, in Sicily.