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

Ross's book The Missing Lynx.

Ross Barnett’s new book.

Ross Barnett is a British paleontologist who specializes in analyzing DNA from subfossil specimens of extinct species of cats.  I have referenced his work in at least 4 of my blog articles.  He just published a book about some of the megafauna that roamed Great Britain during the Pleistocene.  His book includes chapters about hyenas, saber-tooths, lions, woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, Irish elk, bison, aurochs, bears, wolves, Eurasian beavers, and lynx.  I’m familiar with this subject matter but was looking forward to learning something new, and I did.  I learned the most from his chapter on the bovids–the aurochs and bison.  I didn’t know the aurochs (the ancestor of modern cattle) was twice the size of a modern cow. Cave paintings show males were black and females were red–this is something I may have known but had forgotten.  Genetically, the European bison, also known as the wisent, is surprisingly different from the American bison, though they are closely related.  Scientists puzzled over this for a long time.  Cave paintings also suggest differences in the wisent’s appearance over time.  Some are long-horned and robust, while others are shorter-horned and skinnier.  Scientists discovered the modern wisent is actually an hybrid between the bison and the aurochs.  Before 50,000 years ago and after 34,000 years ago European bison appeared more bison-like, but between those dates they were more aurochs-like.  This is recorded in cave paintings as well as genetics.  I think this is the most interesting fact I found in this book.

Ross Barnett explains an ingenious technique scientists use with the tiny bits of DNA they extract from very old subfossils. They add an enzyme from a species of bacteria to the tiny bit of DNA they can extract from a subfossil, and this causes a polymerase chain reaction (polymerase is an enzyme that replicates DNA in cells). This increases the amount of DNA they can analyze.  He was able to analyze the DNA from a 30,000 year old subfossil bone of a saber-tooth cat known as Homotherium latidens.  He determined the 2 lineages of saber-tooths (Homotherium and Smilodon) diverged from the rest of the cats about 20 million years ago.  However, Homotherium and Smilodon were not that closely related to each other.  They diverged 18 million years ago.  But Homotheriums from Great Britain were genetically similar to Homotheriums from the Yukon, and he proposes there was just 1 species in this genus during the late Pleistocene.  Saber-tooths sit on the evolutionary tree between cats and hyenas but are closer to the former.

Ross Barnett strongly leans toward the school of thought that thinks man is responsible for the extinction of most of the megafauna.  This is the only explanation that makes sense to me.  He does favor introducing some species of animals back to Great Britain.  The lynx has been extinct on the island since the 7th century AD.  (Something else I learned in this book–there are 2 species of European lynx: the northern and the Iberian.  At times during pre-history their ranges have overlapped but they haven’t interbred.)  He thinks lynx could be re-introduced with few problems.  They don’t attack people, and farmers could be reimbursed for livestock they might lose.  Lynx would help control the overpopulation of deer in Great Britain.  Apparently, there aren’t enough deer hunters in England.

I discovered just 2 errors in this book.  Dr. Barnett writes bison didn’t colonize North America until 130,000 years BP.  Bison bones excavated from the 10 mile bone bed in South Carolina come from sediment estimated to be from 200,000-240,000 years old.  The presence of bison in North America marks the beginning of the Rancholabrean land mammal age which is thought to have begun about 300,000 years ago.  Bison were in North America prior to his stated date.  He is also unaware that a new species of giant beaver has been named.  Dr. Barnett states Casteroides ohioensis lived in North America from Canada to Florida.  However, the species that lived in Florida and perhaps the mid-south was Casteroides dilophidus.

For people interested in Pleistocene mammals this book is a must read.  Every chapter has nice maps, showing the locations of fossil sites where specimens of each species were found.  The research is up to date but the information is passed on to the reader in a style that is very easy for a layman to understand.

 

One Response to “The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals by Ross Barnett”

  1. ina puustinen westerholm Says:

    Your farflung readings..and commentarys..’leaven’..my life here. Caring for the husbands demetia..24/7..and the newly aqquired res cue dog (mostly shepard..adult size at almost 7 years..48 pounds)..shelling the fall nut harvests..as in days of yore..i can always count on the readings here..to be used/added to..the conversations of bbc..and the info sharing..with my sons. Again..and much thanking you..for these gifts of true, human ..knowing..wondering. ina

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