Where’s Woolly? The Evolution and De-extinction of Woolly Mammoths

NGS Picture ID:122644

Photo: National Geographic

In class today, there was a short discussion involving Woolly Mammoths and the possibility of reviving them from extinction. I decided to do a little research on the topic, because I find it interesting that bringing creatures back from the dead like this is no longer something of science fiction and I was curious to see how scientists and enthusiasts felt about the possibility. First, though, I’ll take a minute to discuss the evolutionary history of Mammoths.

From what I read, the first known ancestor of the Mammoth is a hippo-looking creature called a Phosphatherium, which appeared about five million years after dinosaurs were wiped off the earth. Everything about this creature appears to be the opposite of what Mammoths are — it’s short, hairless, and it’s nose is nowhere near the length of a Mammoth’s, but scientists have traced the Mammoth’s ancestry back to the Phosphatherium because of its teeth. Elephant’s long tusks evolved from incisors rather than canines and this dwarfed-hippo-fellow has teeth that match that development. Without getting into extensive detail of their family tree, Mammoths evolved with thick fur coats to survive the cold weather of the north and had fatty humps on the backs of their necks, which were an essential source of nutrition. They lasted through the last Ice Age, but were hunted to extinction by early humans.

Entire specimens of Woolly Mammoths have been found frozen in Arctic permafrost, and that has allowed scientists to start piecing together their genome, opening up the possibility of the species’ revival. A professor from Harvard Medical School is engineering elephant cells with thicker hair and a fatty layer to make them more like Woolly Mammoths by inserting genes into the elephant genome. As far as I can tell — correct me if I’m wrong — this isn’t the same as reviving a clone of the Woolly Mammoth, but instead a way of breeding a new kind of Mammoth.

This discussion of bringing creatures back from extinction is not entirely brand new. An extinct kind of mountain goat was revived in 2003, but the clone only survived for about seven minutes.

A lot of what I’ve read about bringing Woolly Mammoths out of extinction is actually negative commentary. While bringing back ancient creatures seems exciting in theory, we wouldn’t know where to put them. The idea of maintaining healthy zoo-bred Mammoths seems next to impossible and releasing them into wild would have unpredictable results. Even aside from the “what do we do with them” factor, scientists and environmentalists fear that introducing the possibility of reviving extinct species would create a false impression that science can save endangered species, thus discouraging the conservation movement.

I always really liked Woolly Mammoths when I was a kid — elephants were my favorite zoo animal, and Mammoths always seemed like this ancient, icy, fantasy-world version of them. So I have to admit, the idea of being able to see a real, living, breathing Mammoth is really exciting to me. Even just the fact that scientists can take DNA from creatures that have been dead for thousands of years and create life from it is amazing. Still, it seems like there’s a lot more work that needs to be done before successfully bringing back Mammoths becomes a possibility — and even if it does, there’s still the question of whether or not the environment is capable of providing for them.


3 thoughts on “Where’s Woolly? The Evolution and De-extinction of Woolly Mammoths

  1. One thing you said really caught my eye: that we wouldn’t really be “reviving” Woolly Mammoths, but instead, creating new versions. It got me thinking about the actual classification of species based on genetic makeup. Looking back at the Science of Dogs video, humans need only alter the DNA by 2% to create animals that look and behave entirely different. But as we continue to practice eugenics and create species that meet our needs and wants, will the genetic makeup change so drastically that we no longer call them “dogs”? Are we on the path of creating an entirely new species? I’m glad you mentioned that these new Woolly Mammoths are more like longhaired elephants. It makes me wonder if it’s more of a “fantasy” to bring back these prehistoric creatures, so calling it “revival” of the Woolly Mammoth is more for public appeal. “Woolly Mammoth” sounds a lot cooler than “Hairy Elephant.”

    Evolution is an intriguing and overwhelming concept, and I question how scientists go about classification. Red pandas are my favorite animals, but they are much closer related to the raccoon than the panda. So what is the reasoning behind their name? And hypothetically speaking, if they evolved from raccoons, when did the term “raccoon” get replaced?

    A very interesting read – thanks for sharing your research!
    -Brenna Thummler

  2. Looking at the woolly mammoth I think of how interesting these creatures are, and what more I can learn about them. Reading the blog, I noticed that you talked about the genetic make-up of the woolly mammoth, and how it relates partially to a hippo and elephant. I have always thought that a woolly mammoth was only related to the elephant, but its interesting to find that the hippo makes up a part of this extraordinary creature. As I read further on I noticed that you mentioned a professor was engineering the elephants genes with various other make-ups to possibly to revive the woolly mammoth. It is outstanding to read about what science can do in today’s society. The possibility of reviving the woolly mammoth is amazing, and I would love to further my knowledge on the science behind this genetic history.

  3. now this is probably the intense sci-fi nerd in me talking but I am more than excited about this I am over joyed. Yes I know wolly mammoths went extinct and learning from jarassic park one might think “well obvious somethings just need to pass on” but come on this opens up leagues of new possibilites. as an optimist when it comes to science. this could lead to new fields of though. if you could rework DNA to bring back a wolly mammoth what else could you do. could you dissect over forms of DNA pull strings see what happens? it sounds scary but It could also lead to some really great things. Like the cures to some genetic dieases or at least a better understanding of how things are the way they are.

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