How a dead shark inspired Yarmouth TV scientist Ben Garrod
- Credit: Denise Bradley
Mid-way through a school cross country run he found a dead shark on the beach – so he picked it up, slung it over his shoulder and continued back to his Yarmouth school, where he asked a science teacher for permission to dissect it.
“I was a bit of a weird child,” said Ben Garrod, who grew up to become a professor of evolutionary biology and science engagement.
He claims to be a weird adult too – but that could only be true if it’s weird to intrigued by the natural world and how it works, infectiously enthusiastic about what he discovers, inordinately talented at telling others and inspirational about his home county of Norfolk.
His love of science in general, animals and conservation in particular, and bones as a specialist subject, has taken him around the world, brought him to our television screens, and on Tuesday, August 24 will see him in Norwich Cathedral against a backdrop of Dippy the diplodocus.
“It’s the biggest Who Do You Think You Are? possible,” said Ben. “When did you live, where did you live, are you boy or girl, what did you eat...?”
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Some of the answers will be surprising but the whole of his talk will be entertaining, engaging, accessible for all ages, and packed with science.
“I don’t do kids’ talks or adults’ talks,” said Ben. “You can be five or 105, you can be a child or one of my undergraduates, a science talk doesn’t have to be boring or long-winded or use big technical words.
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“Science isn’t just for scientists. It’s for everyone. It affects us all, so why shouldn’t we have access to science, why shouldn’t we all enjoy it?
“As a local, national and global community we are really engaging with science as we have never done before. Since the pandemic science has been on the television all the time; we are thinking about science and scientists.”
In Norwich Cathedral he will be metaphorically putting the flesh on the bones of Dippy (sample fun facts – Dippy would not have been scared of a T Rex because they lived millions of years apart, but it should have been easy to tease a diplodocus as it would haven taken several seconds for its tiny brain to realise something was tweaking its enormous tail.”
Ben grew up in Great Yarmouth where his parents ran the White Horse pub, then the Elephant and Castle. “Generations of my family have worked in hospitality,” he said. “One of my grannies still runs a hotel in Yarmouth. I got the enthusiasm for people from them, and the ability to talk to anyone.”
Even before the incident of the dead shark he would walk along Yarmouth beach with his grandparents. “I always used to absolutely love it if we found a dead porpoise or gull, and had to have a good poke around!” he said.
His fascination with nature and how animals work took him to university (the first in his family to go) to study animal behaviour. He was working as a waiter when he recognised chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall and asked to serve her table. It led to a job with her chimp conservation project in Uganda, and then work with orangutans in Asia, and monkeys in the Caribbean.
But it was Norfolk, and his childhood fascination with bones, which brought his first television series. An appearance on Spring Watch led to his BBC series Secrets of Bones, and then the chance to work with David Attenborough on a dinosaur documentary. Ben has presented programmes about evolution, robots and baby chimps, is a professor at the University of East Anglia, and the first of his series of books for children has just been published.
They focus on extinction - each highlighting an extraordinary animal lost to the world.
“I’m writing for me when I was a kid, the books I wanted to read when I was growing up in the early 80s - science books which are not patronising but you don’t need a PhD to understand them,” said Ben.
“I have taken extinction and really put it under the microscope, looking at the massive extinctions which have destroyed, but also changed, life on earth. Each time it’s like a chapter ending."
He introduces the final days of the tyrannosaurus rex, the massive megalodon shark, a spiky worm called hallucigenia which lived 443 million years ago, and 360 million-year-old jaw-snapping super-predator dunkleosteus.
“It’s a kids series on mass extinction, some of the most terrifying stuff that’s ever happened on our planet,” he said.
The final book in the colourful eight-part series will focus on a critically endangered gibbon which we might still be able to save. There are just 26 or 27 left.
If Ben could bring one animal back from extinction he would choose the thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger which survived into the 1930s.
“Theirs is a really tragic story. People thought they were wolf-like animals, killing sheep but we now know they only hunted rat-sized animals and are related to kangaroos, not wolves. That extinction just seems wrong and unfair, a massive miscarriage of justice.”
So are humans heading for extinction? Ben is characteristically positive. And pragmatic.
“No, I don’t think we will. I think we will just cling on. We are specialist generalists, like a pigeon or a rat, which can survive in a wide range of habitats.”
His own favourite habitat is Norfolk.
The 39-year-old has lived in Africa, Madagascar, Asia and the Caribbean but always returns to Norfolk.
The beach, just north of Caister-on-Sea, is one of the places he loves best. “It’s where I used to walk with my dog as a kid and when I’ve been away I always go for a walk there on my first day back. Last time I saw a basking shark.
“I love West Runton too. There are some amazing fossils up there. And I’m an ambassador for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust which has 50 or 60 reserves, some huge, some tiny, some coastal, some countryside. I love them all but I think my absolute favourite is Hickling. You see bittern, marsh harriers, cranes. It’s just the most beautiful place.
“I have stood in Patagonia with Sir David Attenborough and even that doesn’t win over Norfolk. I brought him to Norfolk and we went to Cley for the day, to the Wildlife Trust reserve, and that was better!
“We don’t have deserts or glaciers or tropical jungle but we can step back and engage with our local wild places.”
Ben is currently filming for another BBC documentary. He is also a patron of the Norwich Science Festival, based at the Forum from October 23 to 30. He will be involved in several events – including a huge dissection. “I did an alligator last time. All I’m going to say is that it will be bigger and better than an alligator!”
Who was Dippy? with Professor Ben Garrod is from 7-9pm on Tuesday August 24. Tickets £5 plus booking fee from cathedral.org.uk
Ben will be appearing as part of the Norwich Science Festival in October.
The Extinct series by Ben Garrod is published by Zephyr with three books out now, two due in October and the final three next year.