In the fall of 2005 an international team of scientists hailing from the United States, Canada, the UK and Germany successfully decoded 1% of a strand of DNA of the woolly mammoth that has been extinct for 10,000 years. Using an excellently preserved 27,000 year old specimen this team hopes to fully decode the woolly mammoth’s DNA within a year.
The announcement created a great buzz around the idea of cloning the long extinct species. For the first time in history the idea of cloning an extinct species actually seems plausible and in fact nearly a reality.
In the early 1990’s the possibility of cloning extinct animals was popularized by the Michael Crichton novel and later Stephen Spielberg movie Jurassic Park. In this story dinosaurs are cloned using DNA taken from ancient mosquitoes embalmed in amber. Being an adventure story things ultimately end up badly for everyone involved when surprisingly enough the dinosaurs escape.
Scientists today are not talking about cloning dinosaurs, however, which is still a remote possibility but rather woolly mammoths. Instead of a “Jurassic Park” many mammoth clone advocates wish to create a Pleistocene Park that would recreate the Ice Age conditions in which the woolly mammoth thrived.
The Woolly Mammoth
Woolly mammoths have long captured the popular imagination. Unlike dinosaurs, they once coexisted with man and were even hunted by man. It is widely believed that man was the ultimate cause of extinction of the woolly mammoth, an event that occurred about 10,000 years ago although recent evidence has shown that some mammoths survived in isolated pockets another 2,000 years or more.
For centuries man’s primary knowledge of the mammoth came from its tusks. Like its closest modern relative, the African elephant, a mammoth’s tusks are made of ivory. For hundreds of years and perhaps more residents of the harsh climates of Siberia mined the tundra permafrost for mammoth tusks; the ivory from which was sold around the world. This trade continued until at least the 1930’s.
Although mammoth tusks had been harvested for generation after generation in Russia, it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that the woolly mammoth first began to be understood. In 1799 an ivory hunter by the name of Shumakov happened upon a massive dark shape encased in ice. Over several years he continued returning to the site, until finally in 1803 the ice had completely melted and revealed a nearly perfectly preserved woolly mammoth specimen, the first to be scientifically studied.
Weighing over seven tons, the woolly mammoth stood twelve feet tall and higher. Larger than its modern day descendants (African and Indian elephants), it was also covered in thick, shaggy hair (from which it gains the moniker ‘woolly’ mammoth). Its exact origins are unknown, although it is speculated that it first developed in Africa about 1.5 million years ago. It then spread out to cover almost the entire globe, until it died out about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.
Because of such excellently preserved specimens as that found by Shumakov in 1799, much is known about the woolly mammoth, more than is known about most other extinct species of its era and prior. This is also the reason that scientists have turned to the mammoth rather than the much older dinosaur as being the first extinct species to be brought back to life.
The Mammoth Creation Project
Although it was only nearing the end of 2005 that the first results of the mammoth DNA decoding process were released to the general public, the idea of cloning woolly mammoths has been around for several years.
The Mammoth Creation Project is a Japanese organization who has long sought to bring this Ice Age giant back to life. Rather than begin with a look into the actual genetic code of the mammoth, the concept behind the Mammoth Creation Project is quite simple: find a well-preserved mammoth specimen, extract sperm from it and use this sperm to impregnate a modern elephant.
Although this would not actually recreate a woolly mammoth, it would create a creature very close to the mammoth. This new half mammoth-half elephant would then itself be impregnated by more frozen mammoth sperm, making its off-spring would be 75% mammoth and so on until within fifty years it is speculated we would have a creature that is 88% mammoth.
Most of the scientific community has been rather skeptical about the Mammoth Creation Project. The possibility of finding sperm preserved enough to use in this process is slim if there is any at all, and the process defined would not in fact bring about an actual mammoth, but something similar to a mammoth.
Besides scientific skepticism of the work of the Mammoth Creation Project, scientists have also chastised the idea of cloning mammoths on ethical grounds. For one thing, the environment of the woolly mammoth no longer exists. Mammoths could not survive in modern climes. At best they would be isolated to small parks, little better than the island home of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.
Advocates of the Mammoth Creation Project, however, say that bringing mammoths back to life will allow us to better understand them, how they live and how they died. As for the environment of the mammoth, Mammoth Creation Project scientists believe that there are still parts of the Siberian tundra that reflect the ancient habitat of the mammoth.
Some scientists actually seek to recreate the Pleistocene environment. Russian scientist Sergey Zimov is very interested in recreating the landscape of 10,000 years ago. In a large swath of land in northern Siberia he and a team of colleagues are making an attempt to create an actual Pleistocene Park that would accurately reflect this lost world.
The team has begun with introducing animals that would have thrived during the Pleistocene period, hoping that these animals will assist in the recreation of the Ice Age ecosystem. For Zimov though, the goal is not to create a home for modern day mammoth clones but rather to investigate further the cause of the mammoth’s extinction and whether or not it is truly human caused.
The Future of the Mammoth
As of today, it is unknown whether we will ever see the woolly mammoth once again walk the earth. As cloning technology continues to advance and our capability of studying these ancient beasts continues to increase the possibility becomes greater and greater. Even if we have the technology, however, the ethical questions remain unanswered. Is it right to bring back an animal that has been extinct for 10,000 years? This is a question that is still under debate.