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?


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

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

Start the Week: Alien Invaders!

While baby mammoth Lyuba was being unwrapped at the Natural History Museum by my boss Adrian Lister, I was at Broadcasting House for Start the Week, to discuss the thorny subject of Alien Invaders. Not the out of space kind but the movement of animals across the globe, and the emotional subject of the value of native vs non-native species.

You can listen to the programme here.

On the programme with me were: Ken Thompson, whose new book Where do Camels Belong? addresses these issues head-on; Monique Simmons from Kew, an organisation tasked with minimising the UK’s risk from invasive plant species; and John Lewis-Stempel, whose new book The Private Life of an English Field mourns the loss of traditional farming methods — and a number of well-loved, if non-native species alongside. I gave a palaeontological perspective to the discussion. Plus a preview of Mammoths: Ice Age Giants! and some bonus dwarf mammoths.

I never really felt the discussion really took off – but it was fun nonetheless. In particular I felt that Ken (on the program and in his book) was a little bit naughty in shifting effortlessly between the idea of ‘non-native’ species and ‘invasive’ species. I agree that the idea of a ‘native’ British fauna is highly problematic, but it isn’t really fair to paint conservationists as idealogical zealots here: the species they most worry about are the invasive ones. The ones that swamp out all others, reducing local biodiversity and often causing other species to go extinct.

And yes, while species distributions change through time making the idea of a natural baseline highly era-specific, once you accept that maybe ‘natural’ isn’t the be-all and end all it is time for a more challenging discussion: what is it that we value about our environment and the species around us? What kind of world do we want to leave behind?

There aren’t any easy answers to that, but I suspect the answer isn’t throwing up our hands and doing nothing at all.

Ken’s book is really a long-form version of this paper by Mark Davis et al [££] from 2011, which he was a co-author on. It generated quite a number of responses from ecologists at the time: see this letter by Dan Simberloff [co-signed by 141 other scientists; ££]. If you have access to Nature, they are both well worth a read, as are the references they cite!


Cosmic Genome LIVE at the Conway Hall

Last night Brenna Hassett and I represented TrowelBlazers at the Cosmic Genome LIVE event to celebrate the 15th Anniversary of the London Skeptics in the Pub group. It was a lot of fun to talk Six Degrees of Dorothy Garrod, Dorothea Bate, Hitler-defying Halet Çambel et al. alongside Robin Ince, Helen Arney, Adam Rutherford and Steve Jones amongst others.

Wikipedia gets the TrowelBlazers treatment at the NHM

The 19th October 2013 was a perfect confluence of international celebrations as far as TrowelBlazers were concerned: International Day of Archaeology, the final day of Earth Science Week, and the end of a week events surrounding Ada Lovelace Day.

Our contribution to mark all three of these things was to organise a Wikipedia editathon with the dual aims of improving wikipedia content about women in the geosciences and archaeology, and to increase the number of women editing wikipedia pages.


Display of fossils and archival material relating to NHM-linked pioneering women scientists. Those covered included: Mary Anning (1799-1847), Dorothea Bate (1878-1951), Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968), Barbara Yelverton Marchioness of Hastings (1810-1858), Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (1822-1907), Helen Muir Wood (1831-1924), Elizabeth Gray (1831-1924), Mary Home Smith (1784-1866) and (Lucy) Evelyn Cheesman (1881-1969).

With the help of the Natural History Museum’s wikimedian-in-residence John Cummings, I pulled together a whole day of activities that were open to anyone who was interested. Wikipedia training and time for editing, of course, but also a chance to meet historian Pamela Jane Smith (Dorothy Garrod expert) and writer Karolyn Shindler (Dorothea Bate’s biographer). On top of this Hellen Pethers, from the NHM library, and NHM curators Pip Brewer, Sandra Chapman and Zoe Hughes helped me put together a display of archival material and fossils collected by NHM-linked pioneer women scientists. This material is kept behind the scenes, so it was a rare and special opportunity not normally available to the general public.

Places were limited (and it was completely sold out!), but we also live-tweeted it from both @trowelblazers and @thewomensroomuk so that people could join in online. Team TrowelBlazers Suzie Pilaar Birch even joined in from a sister-wikithon in the USA:


For more details read fellow Team TrowelBlazers member Brenna Hassett write-up for the British Geological Society, and Hellen Pethers blogpost on the NHM library blog.

And the #TBwiki hashtag on twitter is well worth checking out for pictures and links from the day.

CT scanning an elephant at the Royal Veterinary College

I’m part of an EU-funded project to 3D-print the skeleton of a dwarf elephant skeleton from Tilos, and one of my jobs has been to CT scan the skeleton of an Asian elephant. This is so that colleagues Evangelos and George Theodorou in Athens can use these scans to fill in any gaps they have in the dwarf elephant skeleton (for example if certain bones are missing from the fossil collections).

So yesterday I went to the RVC to scan one of the NHM’s elephant skeletons in their horse-sized CT scanner, with some help from What’s in John’s Freezer?‘s John Hutchinson. We tweeted as we went…





And of course, John-the-Hutch has a 3D printer all of his own, which I had to check out…


…before heading back to the NHM with our elephant all wrapped up. My mum came to work with me that day.

Charles Lyell Award Lecture at the British Science Festival

What do dwarf elephants have to do with climate change?  Charles Lyell Award Lecture by Dr Tori Herridge, 2012 British Science Festival.

This year I was nominated by the Palaeontological Association to give the Charles Lyell Award Lecture at the British Science Festival. To be nominated by my colleagues was honour enough, so actually being selected by the British Science Association meant my sci-comm cup overfloweth…

It was also rather cool that this year marked the 150th anniversary of the first scientific description of a dwarf elephant — at an earlier British Science Festival, no less [read more about that here].

Receiving my award certificate on a gorgeous day at the very beautiful Univeristy of Aberdeen! Photo (c) British Science Association.

Receiving my award certificate on a gorgeous day, at the very beautiful Univeristy of Aberdeen! Photo (c) British Science Association.

The talk had to be at least 25% interactive, and suitable for families. So I had a fun time inventing demos to explain sea level change in the ice age and concepts like Island Biogeography in a child-friendly way. It was a little perplexing when the audience filed in and there were absolutely no children at all, but I think everyone had a good time. After all, who doesn’t love a demo which involves a tyvek CSI suit and a bottle of spray cream…?

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.