New insights into the life and mysterious death of Jumbo the elephant – a celebrity animal superstar whose story is said to have inspired the film ‘Dumbo’ – will be revealed in a BBC One documentary hosted by Sir David Attenborough and featuring a University of Nottingham archaeologist on Sunday 10 December.
Dr Holly Miller, from the University of Nottingham’s Department of Classics and Archaeology, was invited to work as a specialist in isotope science on the ‘Attenborough and the Giant Elephant’ documentary.
As part of the project, Dr. Miller and the team were given unique access to Jumbo’s skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.
Dr Miller worked with lead scientist Doctor Richard Thomas (University of Leicester) and Professor John Hutchinson (Royal Veterinary College) to build a biography of Jumbo’s life – with the hope of resolving the long-standing mystery of how he died.
The documentary will reveal Jumbo’s height and body mass, and confirm if he was as big as it was claimed.
Dr Miller was particularly involved in the detailed macroscopic and chemical analysis of his teeth, bones and tail hair, which reveal the stresses and strains of captive life and provide insights into how Jumbo might have died. She performed the laboratory work with Dr Angela Lamb from the British Geological Survey as part of CEG, and spent a day filming with Sir David Attenborough in Keyworth.
Lead scientist Dr Richard Thomas, from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, said: “Jumbo is perhaps the most famous elephant in the world. His name is now used as an adjective to describe everything from passenger planes to toilet roll. His story is both captivating and tragic. Born in Sudan in 1860 he was captured as a calf and transported to a zoo in Paris, before arriving at London Zoo in 1865 as their first African elephant. Whilst at London he became the pride of the Zoo, often giving walks to children around the city.
“Jumbo had an intimate relationship with his keeper John Scott – under whose care he survived illness and grew to be the ‘largest elephant in the world’, or so it was claimed.
“Unfortunately, Jumbo became increasingly aggressive as he reached sexual maturity and the zoo took the controversial decision of selling him to Barnum and Bailey’s travelling circus. Despite major public protests, a petition, and an outbreak of Jumbo-mania, Jumbo was eventually shipped across the Atlantic, arriving in New York to great fanfare in 1882.
“In America he became centrepiece of the Greatest Show on Earth, a travelling circus that traversed the length of the US and Canada. Unfortunately, Jumbo died in tragic circumstances: contemporary accounts describe that he was hit by a train while crossing the track to reach his carriage, possibly saving a younger elephant in the process; however, a number of stories emerged at the time suggesting that his death may not have been an accident.”
Dr Holly Miller, from the University of Nottingham said: “We have records of Jumbo’s very poor diet from his time in captivity, so we wanted to see how that might have affected his life and death. As the saying goes, ‘you are what you eat,’ so by looking at the remains of his diet, built into his teeth and bones, we are able to see something of his treatment in captivity. We are lucky that Jumbo was such a superstar because it means his remains were looked after when he died. Working on his tail, preserved at Tufts University in Massachussetts, gives me an indication of his diet and well-being almost to the end of his life, and showed us an interesting clue to Jumbo’s story.”
As well as Jumbo’s skeleton, Sir David will also explore the lives of wild elephants to explain Jumbo’s troubled mind, and he discovers how our attitude to captive elephants has changed dramatically in recent years.
Dr Thomas added: “Working alongside Sir David Attenborough has unquestionably been the highlight of my professional career. Like many, watching Sir David’s documentaries was incredibly formative during my childhood, inspiring my own love of natural history. His knowledge, passion and curiosity for all aspects of our natural world was wonderful to observe first-hand.”
Dr Miller said: “Working with Sir David Attenborough was amazing – his passion for the natural world is obvious to all, but it was great to see how interested he is in the science used to investigate it as well. Being able to discuss my research methods and new data with him was definitely a highlight of my career.”
‘Attenborough and the Giant Elephant’ is broadcast on Sunday 10 December between 9.00pm-10.00pm on BBC ONE.
More information about the documentary is available here .
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