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Remember, Jurassic Park? Twenty years ago it hit cinema screens across the world and entertained millions with the storyline of bringing dinosaurs back from extinction ... but it’s just a story, right?

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The answer 20 years later is "Maybe". This Friday we’re going to be discussing the possibility of de-extinction: bringing extinct species of plant and animal back from the dead. What was once sci-fi may soon be reality. But are we ready? Have we considered the implications and ethics of this developing science?

 

In 2000, the Pyrenean ibex, a species of wild mountain goat, was officially declared extinct. Once common throughout northern Spain and the French Pyrenees, it had been extensively hunted to extinction. But in 2009, with DNA taken from previously collected skin samples, scientists resurrected the species through cloning. 

 

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However, the cloned animal only survived for 7 minutes and died from breathing difficulties. Was it wrong to try to bring it back? Or could emerging scientific techniques be the answer to the current extinction crisis?

 

If a polar bear cub can generate an increased revenue of five million euros in one year for a German Zoo, imagine how much publicity and money a baby mammoth could generate. While this may seem exploitative, could de-extincting a mammoth result in the conservation of endangered species? Could the mammoth act as a flagship species for the development of new technologies?

 

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We’ll be asking these and other important questions at this After Hours discussion event during Friday’s Lates, and there should be plenty of food for thought. Do join us if you can but if you can't, I’ll post again next week and give you an insider’s view on the points that were raised and the topics discussed.

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The UK was for substantial periods in the past largely covered by glaciers that advanced and receded over the landscape as climate changed.  At various times when the ice had retreated - the inter-glacials - animals and plants moved back, colonising and flourishing in the new landscape.  What is now the coast of Norfolk was part of an ecosystem in the valley of a slow-flowing river, home to mammoths, rhino and bison, bears, wild dogs, hyenas, lions, deer, horses and waterfowl.  They lived across a low landscape with mixed woodland of oak, alder and birch.

 

Adrian Lister (Palaeontology) and former NHM researcher Tony Stuart have co-edited a special issue of the science journal Quaternary International that  brings together 18 papers on the geology, dating, floras and faunas of  the stratotype deposit of the Cromerian Interglacial of the Pleistocene (ca 700,000 years  BP).  These studies were presented at an earlier conference at the Castle Museum in Norwich.


This  major piece of work represents the culmination of 20 years of research,  beginning with the discovery and excavation in West Runton (Norfolk) of  a mammoth skeleton (Mammuthus trogontherii) in 1990.  This mammoth would have weighed around 9 tonnes, considerably larger than most modern African elephants, and died at over 40 years of age.

 

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Mammuthus trogontherii

 

The  volume includes contributions from past and present members of the  department, including Simon Parfitt, Mark Lewis, Marzia Breda, Nigel  Larkin, and John Stewart. The West Runton mammoth skeleton is the most  complete of the species, and it represents an important stage in the  evolution of the woolly mammoth. Its discovery stimulated a  comprehensive study of every aspect of the site, resulting in a new and  vivid picture of the environment of the time.


Lister,  A.M. & Stuart, A.J. (eds) 2010. The West Runton Freshwater Bed and  the West Runton Mammoth. Quaternary International 228, 1-248.


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It's been a busy weekend of events....first Tadpoles on Saturday and then Dwarf Elephants on Sunday.  A curious combination of topics, but each equally fascinating!

 

Our Tadpole event was timed to tie-in with the first frog spawn starting to appear in our ponds.....which apparently it is, although warmer weather should help more appear.  Apparently (according to our amphibian curator Barry Clarke) frogs have been known to produce spawn as early as December some years, but hard frosts kill the eggs and it's not until the weather becomes milder that the tadpoles are able to start developing.  In fact, the warmer the weather, the quicker they devlop from tadpoles to adults.

 

Barry was a complete star as always and brought along lots of specimens from our zoology collections.

 

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Note the specimen in the centre of the bottom row.....this is a Midwife Toad.  They show great parental care (unlike our common frogs which lay their eggs and then leave them!)  The female Midwife Toad lays her eggs and the male then wraps them around his back legs.  He then carries them around with him (swimming and moving about seemingly unhindered) until the tadpoles are ready to emerge and swim off.  Because of this parental care, the eggs are far safer and have a greater chance of survival than if they were left unprotected.

 

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However, for the ultimate in parental care, go onto the BBC website and use their 'wildlife finder' to watch some incredible footage of Darwin's frog.  You won't believe your eyes    http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Darwin%27s_Frog#p004j5y9

 

As for the Dwarf Elephants today, well, they were certainly small!  Tori Herridge (a researcher in our Palaeontology Department) brought along some fossils from our collections....including lots of teeth.  The photo below shows the tooth of an extinct Straight-Tusked Elephant at the bottom and an extinct Dwarf Elephant tooth at the top of the photo.  Quite a difference in size!  The Straight-Tusked Elephant was one of the largest elephants ever to live, and could grow to as much as 4 metres tall.  In comparison, Dwarf Elephants were sometimes only 1 metre tall as adults!

 

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We'll be repeating Tori's Nature Live event later this month, at 2.30pm on Wednesday 30th March in the Attenborough Studio.  As always, the event is free and lasts for 30 minutes.  So come and join us if you can and discover more about these mysterious Dwarf Elephants.....

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How to identify an elephant tooth


A beginner's guide to how we identify a surprisingly common enquiry: mammoth and elephant teeth.

 

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Left: This tooth was a family heirloom brought in for ID this week. Many elephant and mammoth teeth that are brought in for ID are heirlooms that have been knocking about the house for a couple of generations. This is an Asian elephant tooth. It is a molar, so it's a grinding tooth.

 

Below: Grinding surface of Asian elephant tooth (left) and African elephant tooth (right) in the NHM Mammal gallery. The African elephant tooth has a more diamond shaped pattern to the grinding surface

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And the elephants themselves in the Mammal gallery - African (top) and Asian (below). Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and their teeth are smaller on average too.

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Below. On the left, a mammoth tooth. On the right, a modern Asian elephant tooth.

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Left: Mammoth tooth. This was dredged up by a fisherman from the North sea and brought to us for ID. Mammoth teeth have a similar grinding to the Asian elephant, and look different to the grinding surface of the African elephant. And mammoths are indeed more closely related to Asian elephants than African elephants!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mammoth and elephant teeth can be very fragile and tend to crack downwards as you can see here. This can leave isolated plates instead of the whole tooth.

 

Now you can identify elephant and mammoth teeth!

 

Visit out Twitter page at http://twitter.com/NHM_id to see the finds we get in every day

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The massive Ice Age mammals that lurk in the recesses of the Central Hall, some giant worms and a gigantic gold nugget, these are all highlights of our last summer Night Safari tour on Monday 12 July.

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Our fossil mammal expert, Adrian Lister, introduces the Ice Age glyptodon.jpgmammals on the night and gives safari visitors the rare chance to get closer to some of our most iconic Central Hall exhibits, like the Ilford Woolly Mammoth skull and tusks, below left, and our armadillo-like Glyptodon fossil, pictured right.

 

Upstairs in Central Hall, curator Emma Sherlock and her giant worms lend their charms to the Tree gallery, and mineralogist Mike Rumsey shares some golden moments in the Vault gallery. Museum botanist Sandy Knapp presents her top Museum pieces, Central Hall's botanically illustrated ceiling panels, and butterfly explorer Blanca Huertas reveals her favourite flutterers.

 

As before, Night Safari visitors can enjoy a drink and snacks at the bar before and after their exclusive tours of Central Hall. There's also a break in the middle of the tour.

 

Book tickets online for Night Safari on 12 July

 

Believe it or not, there was actually a proposal of marriage made - and accepted - in The Vault gallery at the last Night Safari in May, by one of the safari visitors. He'd rung the event organisers beforehand to arrange it and said afterwards: 'Not only was the Night Safari so cool, but finishing the night knowing that I will be spending the rest of my life with my girlfriend, is beyond happiness.' How sweet is that and what a place to do it, surrounded by all those gems.

 

And put this date in your diary. On 1 November, Night Safari returns for a Halloween special.

 

Back to one of July's highlights ... the Ilford Woolly Mammoth skull and tusks display in Central Hall, shown below, is something to behold. But the enormity of this Essex fossil doesn't really come across here. It's the only complete mammoth skull ever to be found in Britain.

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The Ilford Woolly Mammoth model, on the right here, is not on public display, but held in our Palaeontology collection at the Museum