Alice Roberts is at the end of a long round of interviews promoting her new series on the animals of the last Ice Age. So, given the tendency for some journalists to probe the unfathomable with the trivial, what’s the most absurd question she’s had so far? She laughs. “Oh, it has to be, ‘Would our ancestors have kept any of these animals as pets?’” She laughs again. “I tweeted it straight away.”
There’s a reason Ice Age man wouldn’t have been much interested in pet ownership. “In many cases these were creatures of nightmares,” says Roberts. “The sabre-tooth cats, for instance, were quite formidable.”
Her series aims to capitalise on our fascination with creatures that have long since vanished – in this case around 20,000 years ago. It was a period when Britain was still connected to mainland Europe and woolly mammoths roamed the land. “Trawlers in the North Sea routinely recover a huge range of evidence – mammoth remains, woolly rhino remains – from the seabed,” she says. “We understand these animals’ biology better than any before.”
So, at the obvious risk of being outed on Twitter, RT asks the Jurassic Park question. Given the quality of the remains recovered, could science bring these animals back from the dead? She doesn’t scoff, insistings it’s an issue we should all be concerned about.
“We are, quite seriously, on the brink of being able to do this, so it’s quite an important question for people to start grappling with,” she says. “Japanese scientists have already extracted the bone marrow from woolly mammoth remains found in Siberia to look at the DNA with a view to resurrecting a mammoth. It is within our grasp, which is such an extraordinary thing to think about.”
Roberts, a clinical anatomist and professor of public engagement in science at Birmingham University, says scientists could build bodies from old bones by manipulating the DNA from living elephants with that recovered from mammoths. “It’s basically using the same technology as has already been used for cloning.”
So, good thing or bad thing? “There’s something really questionable about bringing back a single mammoth. Mammoths are herd animals and their environment no longer exists, so what are you bringing that animal back for? You’re bringing it back to live in a zoo? I think the ethics are very questionable.”
But why stop at just one? Why not produce hundreds? It isn’t, it turns out, a totally ridiculous proposition. “People have spoken about repopulating Siberia with mammoths in the sense that, like elephants, they are a keystone species that are really important to creating and maintaining a particular type of environment through the way they dig up the ground, and fertilise the land with their dung.
“Personally, I would prefer the emphasis to be on saving existing animals under threat of extinction rather than trying to resurrect their long-extinct cousins. It’s really important that scientists don’t shut themselves away in their labs to work on these things – there are big ethical issues involved and it’s a conversation everyone should be having.”
Roberts has been doing some repopulating of her own recently. Pregnant while filming the series, she gave birth to a boy last month. “I am definitely going to stick the filming on a bit of a back burner. With my previous baby I was filming two months after I gave birth but I think it might be a bit more difficult with two children.”
Which brings us neatly back to pets. Is there one Ice Age relic she’d like to bring home to meet the family? “It would have to be the glyptodont [a huge armoured armadillo the size of a VW Beetle]. I’d love to see one in the flesh.” Cue tweet number two.