Scientists Say They Could Bring Back Woolly Mammoths. But Maybe They Shouldn’t

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An artist’s impression of a woolly mammoth in a snow-covered environment.

Leonello Calvetti/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images/Stocktrek Images

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Leonello Calvetti/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images/Stocktrek Images

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Love Dalén, a professor in evolutionary genetics at the Stockholm-based Centre for Palaeogenetics, is skeptical of that claim.

«I personally do not think that this will have any impact, any measurable impact, on the rate of climate change in the future, even if it were to succeed,» he tells NPR. «There is virtually no evidence in support of the hypothesis that trampling of a very large number of mammoths would have any impact on climate change, and it could equally well, in my view, have a negative effect on temperatures.»

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The body of Lyuba, a baby woolly mammoth who lived about 42,000 years ago on the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia, is exhibited in Hong Kong.

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South China Morning Post/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

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«There is a new normal that has existed for thousands of years that has adapted to the continually changing climate,» Frederickson says. «Bringing back something that has all the characteristics that would have thrived in the Pleistocene doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to survive today, especially when you’re mixing in the unknowns of other genes that are acting in a warm-weather tropical animal and then trying to move it to a new environment.»

«There were plants and animals that were living alongside the mammoth that are now long gone or have drastically shrunk in the range, and just bringing back the mammoth won’t bring those back,» he says.

In a different sense, there’s the question of how mammoths might fit in.

«The proposed ‘de-extinction’ of mammoths raises a massive ethical issue. The mammoth was not simply a set of genes — it was a social animal, as is the modern Asian elephant,» Matthew Cobb, a professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, told The Guardian, in 2017. «What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by elephants?»

Predicted six-year timeline would be exceptionally short

All of this, of course, assumes that producing a mammophant is even possible. Colossal says it hopes to produce an embryo in six years. But with an estimated 1.4 million individual genetic mutations separating the ancient creatures from Asian elephants, the task of gene splicing could prove a mammoth undertaking.

Perhaps an even bigger hurdle will be developing an artificial uterus for gestating the embryos. Even Church acknowledges that this might not be so easy.

«Is this going to happen anytime soon? The answer is absolutely not,» says Frederickson.

Dalén agrees that the six-year timeline is «exceptionally short.» «It seems pretty ambitious,» he says.

But Church and his colleagues aren’t alone in their ambition. The idea of mammoth de-extinction has been around for some time, and other groups, such as the California-based nonprofit Revive & Restore, which last year managed the first-ever clone of an endangered species, the black-footed ferret, have also been working on a mammoth-elephant hybrid.

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The traditional scientific view is that our ancestors hunted the mammoth to extinction, while more recent theories point to habitat destruction at the end of the last ice age as the biggest factor, but with humans still copping part of the blame.

Frederickson thinks that’s one of the reasons that the question of de-extinction — fueled by pop culture and real-world advances in science — is raised so frequently by the patrons at the museum he heads. «I think, as humans, we have a little bit of guilt in us, still knowing that we almost certainly contributed to that extinction event.»

«This may be a way of getting that burden off of our backs,» he says.

  • woolly mammoth
  • bioethics
  • genetics


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