Walking Through Time: Britain’s Last Mammoths–the reading list

Because we can only ever scrape the surface of any subject in a 47 minute TV programme, here are some pointers for further reading [plus links to free downloads, where I have been able to find them].

General Shropshire Geology

The absolute bee-knee’s, all you could ever wish for, guide to Shropshire geology — Peter Toghill’s brilliant book, The Geology of Shropshire.

Or, the short-and-sweet version… also by the legend that is Peter Toghill:

TOGHILL, P. (2008). An introduction to 700 million years of earth history in Shropshire and Herefordshire. Proceedings of the Shropshire Geological Society, 13, 8–24. [FREE pdf here]


The Condover Mammoths

Adrian Lister has the full low down on the mammoths, how old they were, how many were there, how they died etc. Plus an appendix on those maggot casings by Y.Z. Erzinc ̧liog ̆lu:

LISTER, A.M. (2009). Late-glacial mammoth skeletons (Mammuthus primigenius) from Condover (Shropshire, UK): anatomy, pathology, taphonomy and chronological significance. Geol. J. 44: 447–479. DOI: 10.1002/gj.1162 [download from Research Gate here]

James Scourse and colleagues delve into the details of the stratigraphy, what the Condover landscape was like when the mammoths met their end, and just how that kettle hole form

J. D. SCOURSE, G. R. COOPE, J. R. M. ALLEN, A. M. LISTER, R. A. HOUSLEY, R. E. M. HEDGES, A. S. G. JONES and R. WATKINS (2009). Late-glacial remains of woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) from Shropshire, UK: stratigraphy, sedimentology and geochronology of the Condover site. Geol. J. 44: 392–413. DOI: 10.1002/gj.1163 [pdf at academia.edu]

Judy Allen and colleagues reconstruct the environment that the mammoths lived–and died–in (plus the few thousand years either side), based on the remains of pollen and beetles:

J. R. M. ALLEN, J. D. SCOURSE, A. R. HALL, and G. R. COOPE (2009)

Palaeoenvironmental context of the Late-glacial woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) discoveries at Condover, Shropshire, UK. Geol. J. 44: 414–446. DOI: 10.1002/gj.1161 [ResearchGate link here]

A lovely summary of a lecture given by the late, great Russell Coope, shortly after the excavations of the Condover mammoths had been completed:

COOPE, R. (1988). The Condover mammoths. Proceedings of the Shropshire Geological Society, 7, 20─21. [FREE pdf here]

Precambrian (Ediacaran) fossils from the Long Mynd

Alex Liu put’s the Long Mynd’s ediacaran fossils (aka the ‘slimey stuff’) into context:

LIU, A.G. (2011). Reviewing the Ediacaran fossils of the Long Mynd, Shropshire. Proceedings of the Shropshire Geological Society, 16, 31–43. [FREE pdf here]

And if you want to read a bit more about how the Long Mynd fossils provided an answer to Darwin’s Dilemma, this paper by  Richard Callow and Martin Brasier is a nice introduction:

Callow, R.H.T and Brasier, M.D. (2009). A solution to Darwin’s dilemma of 1859: exceptional preservation in Salter’s material from the late Ediacaran Longmyndian Supergroup, England. Journal of the Geological Society 2009, v. 166, 1-4. DOI: 10.1144/0016-76492008-095. [FREE full text 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

Mammoths in the Media

A quick round-up of the last two-and-a-bit weeks of Mammoth Media Madness, where on more than one occasion I found myself thinking ‘What would Peeta Mellark do…?’

It all started with Woolly Mammoth: the Autopsy…

(NB. in the UK, you can watch this on 4oD here)

The Daily Mail, the Independent and the Guardian all thought you should watch Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy on Channel 4, Sunday 23rd November 2014

The Daily Mail, the Independent and the Guardian all thought you should watch Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy on Channel 4, Sunday 23rd November 2014

Which led to an early morning trip to Media City in Salford, to talk mammoth blood on the BBC Breakfast sofa (and they squeezed a cheeky Radio 5 Live segment in on the way up the stairs too!). There was a whole plate of pastries for breakfast but neither I, nor the teachers who were divided about the controversial issue of whether kids should give their teachers christmas presents, wanted to eat them.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 12.56.15

On the BBC Breakfast Sofa, wearing my apple-scratting, cider-making clothes (all I had with me that weekend…)

On the BBC Breakfast sofa, wearing my apple-scratting, cider-making clothes (all I had with me that weekend…)

And then I wrote about the ethics of mammoth cloning for The Guardian’s Comment is Free [more here], which prompted a lot of other journalistic pieces, with comments from me.  Too many to link to.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 13.05.09

This was followed by an invite to go on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live. I said ‘Yes, please!’ [listen here]

No one wants to eat the Saturday Live pastries… From left to right: John Carder Bush, Rebecca Root, Carrie Grant, and me.

No one wants to eat the Saturday Live pastries either… From left to right: John Carder Bush, Rebecca Root, Carrie Grant, and me.

Then Russell Howard’s Good News got in touch. I was terrified, but thought what the heck. They uncovered my #RealorAuel secret, and it all got a bit cheeky, but it was great fun. Russell Howard is a very generous comedian, who let me take the mickey out of him as much as the other way round. [available here in the UK until 01:30, Thurs 11th Dec. Rest of the world, this link should work for you]

Russell Howard and I discuss the finer points of etiquette when sharing a bedroom with one's clone...

Russell Howard and I discuss the finer points of etiquette when sharing a bedroom with one’s clone…

Plus they give you flowers!

Flowers, crisps, chocolates and pizza to order in the Russell Howard's Good News dressing room!

Flowers, crisps, chocolates and pizza to order in the Russell Howard’s Good News dressing room!

And then I got flown to New York for an interview on CBS This Morning to promote the Smithsonian Channel version of #mammothautopsy How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth.

I got picked up in a limousine…

One of four limo trips through NYC. Must say BBC Breakfast didn't stretch (*groan*) to this ;-)

One of four limo trips through NYC. Must say BBC Breakfast didn’t stretch (*groan*) to this 😉

And the CBS This Morning green room had a pretty fancy breakfast spread… But what is it with breakfast TV and pastries? Who on earth wants to go live on national TV with pastry crumbs down their front or stuck to their lipgloss?

CBS This Morning puts on a good breakfast spread. Nobody wants to eat the pastries, again.

CBS This Morning puts on a good breakfast spread. Nobody wants to eat the pastries, again.

American production values made me look very [lip]glossy. I’m glad I wore my fave cider-making cardy again to make sure a bit of the real me made it on-air. Plus, breakfast is a cosy cardigan kind of time.

You can watch the CBS This Morning interview here: http://www.cbsnews.com/common/video/cbsnews_video.swf

Thanks dear chum Anna Zecharia for getting her entire US family up early on the day after Thanksgiving to record this for posterity!

Thanks dear chum Anna Zecharia for getting her entire US family up early on the day after Thanksgiving to record this for posterity!

I also got to meet up with my Team TrowelBlazers buddy Suzie Birch in NYC after the interview, so that was a bonus!

Suzie Birch and I catching up in Central Park, NYC. Nice selfie work there, Suzie!

Suzie Birch and I catching up in Central Park, NYC. Nice selfie work there, Suzie!

And the icing on the ridiculous cake? I made it into Grazia’s Chart of Lust. One below Morrissey. Oh Yes.

Number 7 on Grazia's Chart of Lust. Surely life is downhill from here?

Number 7 on Grazia’s Chart of Lust. Surely life is downhill from here? Thanks Nicola Hembrey for the pic!

It’s been a ridiculous whirlwind of a time. Exhausting and hilarious. Hopefully informative on the science front to all who paid attention, and didn’t get totally sick of me.

Postscript: one of the things that freaked me out about all this TV was having no idea about the practicalities of what’s involved in different settings: the studio set-up, what to wear, what to bring with me etc. For example, I don’t normally wear make up except for special occasions, but I’m vain/self-conscious enough to not want to look crap on the telly, so should I arrive with my make up done? Or bring it with me?

Here’s some knowledge I’ve gleaned that may be useful to others in the same situation:

1. I had to sort myself out hair/make-up/clothes-wise on #mammothautopsy. This meant I got stuck wearing the same boiling hot outfit for a week (for continuity) as we launched into the autopsy and filming earlier than I expected. I had my hair up, fortunately, so that wasn’t flopping around everywhere. But I don’t recommend a hand wash-only cardigan as suitable mammoth autopsy attire… Or necklaces.

2. If you go to a TV studio, they will do your make up and hair for you so you really don’t have to worry. This is very important for morning tv when you don’t really want to be arsed getting up even earlier than you have to and then have an eyeliner crisis or whatever. How much make up they put on you varies, though, so I imagine having some idea of what you want to look like might help. If I’d been braver, I might have asked for a leetle less of the slap on Russell Howard. Though as it just brought me in line with Russell — yes blokes, you’ll be getting the treatment too, as Steve says below — I suppose it was  beauty-base zero, as they say in the Capitol. The CBS ladies were the best, as they sized me up and realised I wasn’t a make-up person, so kept it minimal. BBC Breakfast kept it minimal too, but I think that was mostly because we had literally 30 secs to get ready and the make-up artist was also busy eating a pastry with one hand. Still, at least someone’s eating those pastries 😉

3. Food. They will promise to feed you, but for breakfast TV & radio it will be pastries. And there won’t be any plates (I sound like my mum!). Fine for radio, but these have to be the worst food EVAH for a pre-broadcast snack as they’re so messy. I’d make sure you have breakfast first, if you aren’t too nervous.

4. Clothes. Apparently blue and green are frowned upon by RHGN (and any green-screen setting too), which was a disaster for me as that is basically my entire wardrobe (apart from Scandinavian knits..). Also crazy patterns, stripes and checks cause strobing issues. I had to dash out at lunch and buy a not-very-expensive red top from Zara. I recommend Icelandic cardigans wherever possible, except at mammoth autopsies.

5. It helps, I’ve found (also when doing live events), to wear something with a waistband that they can attach the mic battery pack easily. So skirt/trousers/dress with a belt. Otherwise you might find yourself fiddling with the waistband of your tights in fairly public settings…

I should also add that all of the producers I dealt with were super-nice, and super-kind. Thanks especially to Trudy Scanlon at BBC Breakfast and Ben Michaels at Russell Howard’s Good News for dealing patiently with all of my questions and being all-round good eggs. I even forgive you for the Mammoth Hunters excerpts, Ben — reading the books to find the juicy bits is punishment enough!

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**



Tucking Baby Lyuba in for her Journey Home

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.

You can see me telling CBBC’s Newsround about Lyuba & the Exhibition here.

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.

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!


Mini-mammoths once lived on Crete


My Royal Society Proceedings B paper Extreme insular dwarfism evolved in a mammoth  is out. The NHM’s film-maker Sally Weale made a really nice short film about it. Lovely excerpts from Dorothea Bate’s diary that really capture the thrill of discovery.

More here on the NHM website.

And you can download the paper (for free!) from the Royal Society here.

[Edit] A selection of the various bits of press coverage…

‘You knew about the shrinking Greek economy, but did you know about the shrinking wildlife?’ [Daily Mail, of course]

“Probably quite cute…but you’d be a bit intimidated” — Insightful comment from Dr. Herridge to the AFP. I was trying to make a point about ontogenetic scaling…

Nature News commissioned a lovely image by Viktor Leshyk to go with their sensible coverage:

Mammuthus creticus, next to a man for scale. By Viktor Leshyk. (c) NPG

Mammuthus creticus, next to a man for scale. By Viktor Leshyk. (c) NPG

And I also went on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks to talk about the paper. You can listen to the show here.