Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Mammoths: Ice Age Giants at the Natural History Museum

First thing this morning I was at the press preview for "Mammoths: Ice Age Giants", which opens tomorrow at the Natural History Museum (NHM) London.

I regret I've got no photos. When I got there I found my camera was somehow damaged and wouldn't focus, there was a rather pathetic buzzing noise when I switched it on. The photos I took with it came out very blurry, so you'll have to rely on my written description of the event.

And I only had the opportunity to say briefly say hello to, and shake hands with Prof. Adrian Lister, the NHM's expert on mammoths, as he had a lot of interviews lined up, including one with a Japanese TV crew. Prof. Lister, along with Dr. Victoria Herridge, who was also at the launch, helped me out with contributions to Pygmy Elephants.

Lister said we are just at the beginning with DNA studies of mammoths, although we've already used DNA it to establish their hair was not red (frozen mammoths are often unearthed with red hair) but dark brown. The red is the result of decay over the years.

Global warming played a big part in the mammoth's demise, according to Lister, and led to retreating grasslands and encroaching forests. with human agency towards the end also being a factor. Mammoths moved into the same areas as humans at about the same time, as the environment opened up the same "pathways" for them to travel - out of Africa, into Eurasia and across the Bering Straits into the New World. We don't know for certain whether the many "mammoth products" used by early humans were hunted or scavenged.

Lister also said that the current global warming we're experiencing means the permafrosts melt for longer, resulting in more mammoth discoveries in recent years than in the 200 years since the first recorded discovery in 1799. Another factor in the sharp rise in mammoth discoveries is "locals twigging that people are interested", as Lister put it, meaning that the peoples of Siberia are looking out for mammoth remains more, and reporting them when they find them. There remain an awful lot of mammoth tusks to be found in the soil of Siberia, he added.

In response to a question, Lister said of the legal trade in mammoth ivory that there's a debate about its ethics, and whether by satisfying demand it saves elephants, or by keeping ivory carving going it fuels the demand for the illegal ivory trade. Mammoth ivory is currently "not covered by CITES" as they're extinct, not endangered anymore.

There's a full-size Columbian mammoth replica in the exhibition, not much bigger than the biggest African elephants, with thin fuzzy hair only along its back and the top of its head. There's a Mammathus exilis pygmy elephant reconstruction (M. exilis lived on Santa Rosa island, off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.) The full-size M. exilis model has a long narrow skull and a domed head, and no fur, and surprisingly short tusks. It's about my height (6ft 3). Behind the M. exilis model there's a nice mural of M. exilis on the Santa Rosa beach, with elephant seals (about the same size) and pelicans.There are Mammathus creticus bits on display along with other Cretan microfauna. M. creticus was for over a century known as Elephas creticus, until Dr Herridge's research discovered it was in fact not a pygmy elephant but a pygmy mammoth - and one of the smallest, not much more than three feet high. Wisely, there no reconstructions beyond a painting at this stage.

There's a "bring me the head of a probiscidean" exhibit with the massive disembodied heads of some of the earlier elephant relatives, and you're allowed to touch them. The deinotherium has a huge thick short trunk and relatively tiny, and all the proto-elephant proboscideans have not much tusk showing beyond the gum.

And there were lots of lovely interative displays, and the extraordinarily preserved baby mammoth Lubyna was impressive, particularly the "brown fat" lump behind the back of her head, used to regulate body temperature.

The bronze miniatures of different elephants had the Columbian mammoth at around African savannah elephant size, and the woolly smaller, and the American mastodon I thought very elelphant-like, barely distinguishable from an elephant.

There was also a full-size in situ half buried mammoth skeleton sticking out of some earth, it was unclear whether it was real or a cast. There wasn't much wolliness in evidence, and the audio emphasised they weren't just woolly, they lived on four continents and across a range of climates.

The NHM shop (its Gift Shop and online shop) is currently without a 'retail buyer', they asked me to drop off a sample copy of Pygmy Elephants for their 'retail guy' to look at, and they will get back to me in the event they're interested in stocking it.

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