Handling mammoth fossils and observing elephants has given our ice age mammal expert insights into how these creatures lived and died out.
Prof Lister was fascinated by the fossils he handled as a zoology undergraduate, seeing them as a window on the past. He now studies ice age mammals and their modern relations. For example, he works on extinct mammoths and also their modern cousins the elephants. He sees ice age fossils as a bridge between the ancient past and the present day.
During his career Prof Lister led expeditions to Nepal, Borneo and Ghana, studying African and Asian elephants to determine if they were subspecies. To him it all ties in: ‘We can learn from how and why the mammoths went extinct as to what might happen to living elephants.’
As he began his mammoth-hunting career he got the chance to work on the most significant mammoth find in Britain. An adult and several juveniles were found together at Condover, Shropshire, and dating their bones proved that mammoths had survived in Britain much longer than previously believed.
Later, Prof Lister worked on the first scientific study of mammoth DNA. He’s amazed how far we’ve come in 20 years, but admits we’re still technically a long way off from cloning a mammoth. While a living mammoth would certainly answer a lot of questions, he thinks there are too many ethical problems with bringing back an extinct species at high cost, rather than using the funds to protect living animals at risk.
Instead, Prof Lister keeps working to discover more about mammoths and other ice age mammals from their fossils. With new techniques like isotopic signatures, ancient DNA sequencing and CT scanning, we can now know what they ate, what colour their hair was and how they adapted to changing climates.
As he says of the collections: ‘Even if we never added to them, they are still an inexhaustible research resource because we’re always asking new questions of them.’