Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2019
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
For most of us, most of the time, the creatures long-vanished from our Earth such as the mammoths and sabre-tooth cats and aurochs of the last Ice Age or the dinosaurs who came millions of years before them, are just mental concepts – as dry and dusty and remote as the fossil specimens that crowd the drawers and cupboards and display cases of our museums. Once in a while, however, some creative person manages to bring them alive for us, albeit briefly. I can still recall the visceral jolt I experienced on seeing the sick triceratops in the Jurassic Park movie visibly breathing. And sometimes, a well-crafted and creative museum exhibition can do the same for our experience of the lost lynxes and mammoths and cave bears who once walked the ground we now tread. The Mammoths: Ice Age Giants exhibition put on by our own Natural History Museum in 2014 was a good example of that. Suddenly, these creatures become real: living, warm-blooded animals just like us yet infinitely mysterious.
Rarely, though, have I ever had this same feeling evoked in me purely as the result of a book. Ross Barnett’s book The Missing Lynx, is an exception. I think it is because Barnett not only describes these long-lost creatures – their appearance, their habits and their habitats — but also reconstructs, by means of paleontological evidence, the relationships they had with the humans of their times. As we are now all too sadly aware, these relationships inevitably ended in our species hunting theirs to extinction. As the author so wryly comments: In South America, humans arrived less than a millennium after breaking south of the Canadian ice sheets. By 11,000 years ago, all of the giant, elephant-like gomphotheres, bear- to giraffe-sized giant sloths, armoured tank-like glyptodonts, weird notoungulates and litopterns were dead. South America lost 48 genera of megafauna, more than any other continent…For all the continents, a freaky coincidence is evident. People turn up and megafauna disappear.
And we have not learned our lesson. Furthermore it is not only the megafauna that we are endangering now. The sixth mass extinction, which started with the loss of the mammoths and other creatures so lovingly and vividly described in this book, is proceeding so fast that according to a recent report, which assessed the state of our planet’s biodiversity, up to a million plant and animal species are currently facing face extinction, many within decades, due to human activity.
How can we turn this tide? And if we do, by some miracle, manage to avert the threat to those million species, can we also entertain the possibility of bringing back into our modern landscapes, some of creatures we know of only through the fossil record or, very occasionally, through the discovery of an intact carcass preserved for millennia in peat? Modern biotechnology might one day make this theoretically possible, albeit most likely inadvisable. Meanwhile, however, given that some species long gone from Britain still exist elsewhere, can at we consider, for example, the reintroduction of the magnificent lynx of the book’s title to our British countryside? After all, as Barnett points out, we are already in the process of successfully reintroducing the beaver.
This book does a masterful job of combing the ancient past, the problematic present and the possible future into a fascinating an very readable book.