Mammoths: Ice Age Giants! is over and baby mammoth Lyuba is returning home to the Shemenovsky Institute in the Yamal-Nenets region of Siberia.
Lyuba is an almost perfectly preserved mammoth baby who, despite being healthy and well-cared for (the milk remains in her stomach show she had recently suckled from her mother), met an untimely end when she fell into a quick sand-like bog or pool. That same fate however led to her being so well-preserved, frozen in the permafrost for 42,000 years.
Having been thoroughly scanned, sampled and autopsied in the name of Science, Lyuba was preserved in the same way as Lenin so that she could go on public display. The Natural History Museum was the first time she had gone on display in Western Europe.
I wasn’t there when she arrived at the NHM (I was doing publicity for the exhibition on Start the Week instead – see this post), so I missed the emotional unwrapping of Lyuba by Adrian Lister. And even though it was still pretty special to see her even through a glass case, I was frankly rather jealous. I wanted to smell her, and look at her eyelashes, and get a really close look at her exquisite trunk.
So I wangled an invite to her ‘de-install’ on September 8th. Or as I prefer to think of it, the official tucking-up of Lyuba for her journey home.
And she was indeed beautiful, lying in her travelling case amidst layers of protective padding, her eyes closed as if she really was asleep. I can tell you that she didn’t smell at all. Perhaps the faintest hint of Siberian tundra in the summertime, but I may have imagined that.
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.
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!