Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and author of Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects.
A good title goes a long way, and based on that alone I was excited to receive a review copy of Ross Barnett’s new book through the post. I knew of Ross from Twitter – and I can heartily recommend following him for a whole host of natural history-related wonders, particularly around climate change, ancient mammal DNA and palaeontology. As a result, I was slightly surprised that he had written a book that I assumed – from the clever title – was about reintroducing the lynx to Britain.
That is, in fact, not what the book is about. Instead, it takes us species-by-species, chapter-by-chapter, through the incredible range of beasts that have disappeared from the British Isles in recent millennia (I should have paid more attention to the subtitle). We learn about the woolly mammoths and rhinos, the huge cave bears and their slightly smaller relatives, cave lions and cave hyenas, sabretooth cats, massive species of cattle and deer, as well as wolves, beavers and, yes, lynx. All of these stories are told in the voice of a person clearly fascinated and excited by the things he has been studying all his life, and with a dry sense of humour.
Each chapter describes what we know about the species in question (and how we came to know it), when they became extinct, and the potential or actual role of humans in their extinction.
The Anthropocene has been proposed as a geological epoch starting when humans began significantly impacting global ecosystems. How we define the start of the Anthropocene has been hotly debated (epochs need a clear geological signature), and in The Missing Lynx Ross provides a clever answer: that the Anthropocene and the Holocene are effectively synonymous. The Holocene began at the end of the last “Ice Age” – a time that coincides with the extinction of very many species of megafauna. Given that the evidence is increasingly pointing to a human hand in these extinctions, the disappearance of these beasts from the fossil record is the earliest signature of humanity’s terrible influence.
In short, I absolutely loved this book. It is the second book I have read this month that weaves together stories of incredible natural history (the amazing ways in which species live or lived), cutting-edge scientific research, and tales from museum storerooms, as well as positive insights into environmental conservation. The other was Nick Pyenson’s Spying on Whales.
Both books follow a deeply personal narrative where the author sheds light on their own experiences excavating fossils, uncovering new insights from museum specimens and dissecting fresh carcasses. There are delightful “tales from the bush” and extremely readable accounts of their own scientific discoveries across their careers. Both Pyenson and Barnett have writing styles that make you feel like they are talking to you over a pint. It’s hard to overstate how much I recommend them to anyone with the vaguest interest in natural history, modern palaeontology, museums or conservation. I’m slightly nervous about the next book I read as these two have set such high bars.
When I’m writing a book, I’ve been somewhat nervous about referencing contemporary popular culture, in case it confuses people who don’t know the reference, and because it can quickly become dated. Ross Barnett has no such fear, and his writing is delightfully enjoyable as a result. We see so much of his personality coming through as he throws around references to Game of Thrones, Alien, the 2012-14 The Hobbit films and Pixar’s Up with wild abandon. I’m sure I didn’t get every cultural reference, but I wasn’t any worse off for it.
What he writes is extremely readable, and he has a delightful turn of phrase. He asks us who mourns for the parasitic tapeworms and amphipods that disappeared when Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction, and paraphrases Dylan Thomas as he rages against the shifting of the baseline.
Never have I seen footnotes so well utilised to add real story, detail and humour. It seems that if Ross ever felt he couldn’t sufficiently let loose his personality in the main body text, he goes all out in the footnotes. In this respect perhaps his writing reflects modern blogging styles where footnotes are put to such effects. It’s interesting to see this practice transferred to a “proper book”. It works well.
In the chapter on aurochs I found myself so utterly fascinated by the story that I forgot I was supposed to be taking notes. I learn that ancient DNA has shown that European bison came about through ancestral hybridisation between aurochs’ ancestor and extinct steppe bison. As such the aurochs isn’t genetically extinct (even if you discount the fact that cows are a form of aurochs). And that the closest thing we have to living aurochs, Heck cattle – long cited as a Nazi contribution to rewilding (“Nazi super cows” is the title of a recent article in The Independent) – are actually the product of the non-Nazi in the Heck Family, Heinz Heck. While his SS brother Lutz – an acolyte of Hermann Göring – also attempted to de-extinct the aurochs, all of his animals were destroyed by Allied bombing in Berlin.
In the book’s final chapters, we reach animals that are gone from Britain but survive elsewhere. While conservation is an ongoing message throughout the book, it’s here that they come to the fore. And yes, that includes the possibility of reintroducing the lynx.
The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals by Ross Barnett. Hardcover: 352 pages. Bloomsbury Wildlife (11 July 2019). ISBN-13: 978-1472957344
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