The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals

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.

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Nature’s Empire

Opportunities for international research are rare when working in a regional museum. So when one arose I grabbed it with both hands.

Thanks to two external specialists, Martyn Rix and Henry Noltie (of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Edinburgh respectively), we already knew that a group of 86 beautiful Indian paintings of plants and animals in RAMM’s collection were important. The works were painted by Indian artists under the instruction of European scientists while India was under British rule.  They also recognised that the plants depicted were economically useful for medicines, dyes and timbers. So in 2016 RAMM displayed half of the works in an exhibition called Flower Power – Botanical Drawings from India. The artworks were all conserved through funding from Arts Council England’s PRISM fund, as outlined in this article Preparing for Flower Power.

Sheah Gosh. Watercolour and gouache, c.1770-80 by an unknown artist. Cresswell collection. © 2018 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council. This depiction of a lynx is by an unknown artist. In Urdu it is known as ‘siyah gosh’ meaning ‘black-eared’. The animal was probably kept in a menagerie.

The collection caught the attention of two University of Exeter lecturers, Dr Nandini Chatterjee and Dr Andrew Rudd, as well as Dr Jayanta Sengupta; a visiting curator from India. I explained that although we had learnt a lot about the collection already, there was still much we did not know. Such as:

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