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.