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Scientist met wild lynx in the Yukon

By Margaret Chrystall

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THOUGH Inverness writer and palaeontologist Ross Barnett is clearly a man fascinated by the past – particularly 15,000 years ago and the Pleistocene era – his wish that lynxes may return to the Highlands is all about the future.

Ross’s first book The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals goes from why Britain’s ‘megafauna’ – mammals heavier than 100 pounds, such as mammoths, lions and bears – became extinct, to the possibility of rewilding, with the lynx top of his list.

With a zoology PhD from Oxford, Ross specialised in looking for and analysing ancient DNA, and he is also passionate about the genetics of extinct sabretooths and others in the cat family.

Ross's book The Missing Lynx.
Ross's book The Missing Lynx.

Ross said: “I am fascinated by how you can go from the small-scale detailed things, working in the lab looking at nanoscopic bits of DNA, to looking at big questions like ‘why are these species not here any more? What happened to them?’.”

His book asks why so many creatures became extinct. But it also wonders could we bring some of these ancient mammals back – and if we could, should we?

His book pulls you into a subject that for many might be difficult. Making it easy, fascinating – and, most of all, fun – he introduces a real-life, almost Jurassic Park scenario, a Harvard scientist splicing mammoth genes with an elephant’s – though Ross asks where that might lead – and why.

But it can seem less like science, more like magic.

Ross commented: “As Arthur C Clarke says ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology can be indistinguishable from magic’ – and there is a lot of truth in that. What we don’t want to do is spend too much time bringing back the past, but on the potential of now and the future.”

There are many surprisingly local references in the book, such as how the last wolf in Scotland was killed in Helmsdale in 1700 (or was it?), the story of Felicity, the puma discovered in Cannich, and the Ardross wolfstone, current habitat Inverness Museum.

In the book, Ross’s lively writing style means a reference to science fiction writer Philip K Dick here, a vividly-explained description of what the Ice Age would have looked like there. And by asking you to stretch your arms out and imagine, the five extinctions through the ages are placed in their correct time period using your body as a map. The sixth, we are still causing now, Ross writes.

And when it comes to who caused most of the death of the ancient creatures, Ross has a theory. We need look no further than ourselves.

He disagrees that climate change was the cause and puts it down to “human overkill”. And he writes: “How could we have killed them all with pointy sticks? We could and we did.”

It was after a career of research, some lecturing and working for a charity that Ross turned to writing his book.

He explained: “I’ve got two kids now and my wife has a full-time job, so I wrote the book in between dropping the kids off at school in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon!”

Ross has a blog with colleagues called Twilight Beasts where they take it in turns to write about a species from the Ice Age. And last year he came runner-up in the Hugh Miller short story competition, writing about how his fascination with the past began when he found a fossil, a beautiful ammonite, as a youngster.

Each chapter in the book is devoted to one of the ancient animals that have been lost and the chapter on the northern lynx lies at the heart of book, bridging past and future.

“I think it crystallises a lot of what the book is about,” Ross said. “Extinctions, reintroductions, living with wild creatures, wonder at the natural world – all those things can be hooked up through the prism of the northern lynx.

“If you just look at them and appreciate them for what they are, then you can’t help but fall in love with them a little bit.”

Ross had his own close encounter with one in the Yukon when he and some researchers were travelling between gold mines doing fieldwork on megafauna bones.

The northern lynx. Picture: Martin Mecnarowski via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The northern lynx. Picture: Martin Mecnarowski via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“A couple of hours from Dawson City … we rounded a bend and about 30 metres ahead of us, a lynx was waiting on the road. We… saw it unhurriedly ambling away amongst the spindly trees. Off to do secret lynx things that didn’t concern the likes of us. It was only a moment, but it will remain with me forever.”

Rewilding is a hot topic, particularly in Scotland.

Ross said: “At the moment there are some really dedicated scientists and wildlife workers who are taking the case forward.

“They are doing a good job in Scotland of liaising with the people the lynx would have to live with. And that is a critical thing.

“If they can win over the landowners and the farmers, I don’t see why it couldn’t go ahead.”

Ross’s book The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals (Bloomsbury Wildlife, £16.99/ebook £14.26) is out now. Find the blog Twilight Beasts at twilightbeasts.org

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