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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Mammalian megafauna

By Dean W Veall, on 31 May 2013

Mammoth hair

Mammoth hair

Megafauna, what a great word, it will feature prominently throughout this blog. By far the most popular extinct megafauna with the public are the megafauna of the reptilian variety, dinosaurs, pterosaurs and marine reptiles like icthyosaurs. But coming a close second in the megafauna popularity stakes are the mammalian megafauna in fact I would go as far as to say they are even the second most popular extinct fauna (sorry all those lovers of underwhelming fossil fish).  The mammalian megafauna are the stars of a new BBC2 natural history documentary Ice Age Giants fronted by Dr. Alice Roberts.

Here at the Grant Museum we have our own ice age giants, some of whom featured in the first two programmes of the series that have been going out on Sundays at 8pm. The collection here includes a cast of cave bear skull, various mammoth parts, tusks, hair, teeth, sabre-tooth cat skulls and a Homo neanderthalis skull cast. Not to forget the animal that puts the mega into megafauna, our beautiful skull of giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus). So for me this series was definitely one on the watch list. As excited as I was at the prospect of seeing more mammalian megafauna on television I did broach this programme with a little trepidation. I’ve been burned by CGI based natural history documentaries before and have grown terribly weary of the glut of real and imagined animals being herded and chased (uhm Nigel Marven and his series Primev… I mean Prehistoric Park). Initially I was reluctant to invest and endorse a sub-genre of natural history film-making that have given viewers ever diminishing return since the brilliance of the pioneering Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts  (which incidentally came with two versions of the narration, one with Kenneth Brannagh more generalist BBC1 audience and another on the ‘red button’ for the more informed).

I persevered and I am glad that I did. Ice Age Giants restored my faith in this type of documentary. The mammalian megafauna in question are from the Pliocene and the Pleistocene Epochs with a focus on the ice age (technically the glacial periods of the ice age we’re currently still in), thus the title. For a show with ice age in the title, in the first episode of this three part series at least there was a distinct lack of snow. It focused on the effects on the climate of North America on the two mile high Laurentide ice sheet that covered much of the continent, which ebbed and flowed over thousands of years forming landscapes very different to the ones we see in North America today. Each episode, so far, involves the set up with Dr. Alice Roberts on a quest to discover more about the megafauna in question be that  in a rather flash looking convertible driving in the Californian sun, climbing a bare cliff face or mounting a glacier, complete with crampons. This is then followed by some exposition of up to the minute peer-reviewed science, such as that of Professor Blaire van Valkenburgh from UCLA and her work on the Smilodon, explained in person by the academic in the field or in a museum store and illustrated via Alice’s voice over of the BBC’s Natural History Unit’s archive footage of modern relatives. The viewer is given a solid grounding of the life history of the megafauna before witnessing it in all it’s computer animated glory. And it is this that marks this series out from all its contemporaries. I feel this strikes the perfect balance in the Reithian values of the BBC, I leave this programme feeling informed, educated by the science and entertained at the spectacle of CGI extinct megafauna.

Giant elk

Giant elk

Sir Dave (one of my favourite octogenarians, there is a list I can provide a pdf via email), has always shied away from accepting the praise for the epic landmark natural history films he authors and narrates,  he puts it squarely at the door of the cameramen and the scientists. It is the scientists, landscapes and museum specimens that are the stars of this programme, the CGI is alright, but I thoroughly enjoyed hearing and seeing the work of the people whose job it is to answer the questions about the megafauna that discovering their remains poses. Their passion, enthusiasm and knowledge are exactly what should be showcased in a documentary like this.Very few museums take advantage of their resource they have their curatorial and researcher staff in face to face discussions with the public (Nature Live at the Natural History Museum is an example of best practice and innovators in the field of  natural history).  So it’s  especially heartening as a museum insider who has met many people like those on screen who work hard ‘behind the scenes’ in museums to see them playing such a prominent part as opposed to the usually light touch generic ‘science presenter’.

And Alice Roberts… How awesome was she? I thought she was an excellent choice as a presenter. Whether facilitating a discussion between an academic and the audience searching through giant sloth dung some 40,000 years old (my highlight of the first episode)  or leading us down the stores at the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits through the vast collection of megafaunal remains in drawers, her genuine curiosity and enthusiasm was a pleasure to watch. Using her authoritative knowledge as an anatomist to recognise of septic arthritis in the pelvis of a sabre-toothed cat she’s neither a talking head parsing the words given to her by researchers or the frustrating ‘naive’ type presenter who insults audiences with dumb questions to the experts. Awesome.

 Well worth a watch.

 P.S. This one is for Alice Roberts, I like Alice am a wild swimming fan. Here I am in the height of summer in the Brecon Beacons on a wild swim in a beautiful wooded area dotted with waterfalls  . It was cold, oh so very cold.

Wild swimming in the Brecon Beacons

Wild swimming in the Brecon Beacons

P.P.S  Megafauna used total of 14 times, 6 of which in opening paragraph. Boom

Dean Veall is the Learning Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology


2 Responses to “Mammalian megafauna”

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