Russell Coope: beetles reveal past climates

Russell Coope tells story of his discovery in 1954 of fossil beetles at Upton Warren in Worcestershire indicating radically different past climates.

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I went down to the – got on the bus and went to Upton Warren and I nearly fell over a mammoth tusk, and there were bones sticking out all over the place; reindeer antlers, woolly rhinoceros teeth and jaws, all lying around in the bottom of the pit. And then one of the quarry men said to me, he says, ‘You know where those bones come from?’ and I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘You see that black seam?’  There was a layer of black in the middle of the gravel, he says, ‘they all fall out of that,’ and he says, ‘it’s full of seashells.’ Well if you know anything about geography you’ll know that Droitwich ain’t very near the sea so this became unlikely. And I got a biscuit tin and I put some of this black mud in to wash the shells out. And amongst the seashells, they weren’t, they were freshwater molluscs, were bits of beetle. The beetle bits were clearly contemporary with the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros. I knew not what they were but what sort of things they were. Some of the things I was looking at at Upton Warren were familiar but some of them that weren’t. Now there is a group of beetles, dung beetles, this group of beetle are known as aphodious and amongst my bits were lots and lots of them with a bit horn in the middle of its head which split into two at the top. We found that this was in fact living but not in Europe but living in Asia, and it was a – a species now confined to high altitude in Tibet. What living in Britain during the Ice Age? Some of the things were sufficiently peculiar that I went to visit a specialist in the group that I was interested in, the carabidae, the ground beetles, a man called Carl Lindroth at the University of Lund. And I showed him my stuff and he just looked at one thing and he said, ‘Do you know what that is?’ and I said, ‘Well I know the sort of thing but it doesn’t look quite right.’ He says, ‘you’re dead right it doesn’t, it’s an East Siberian species, where did you get it from?’ I said, ‘Worcestershire-,’ [laughs]. You can imagine we had a rather – a confrontation and the reason was that most people in those days believed that the present day distribution of an animal was somehow an indication of its evolutionary history, but now I was looking at present day distributions which had no relationship to a past distribution. And so to discover things that are living either exclusively in Tibet or exclusively in Eastern Asia, extreme Eastern Asia, all sorts of extraordinary things started to appear out of the woodwork. And with them the consequences that I’m sure you’re aware of now, that they are trying to tell us something, by the way they’ve changed their distributions, about past environments. Notice they are still living species but they live in a different place and that is rather vital because they haven’t evolved to fit the new conditions, they’ve simply moved. And that was the discovery that started off at Upton Warren [laughs] long long ago.

  • Interviewee Russell Coope
  • Duration 00:03:47
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Paul Merchant
  • Date of interview 11/24/2011
  • Shelfmark C1379/63

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