• Jacob Bourne

Woolly Mammoth De-Extinction Plan a Symptom of Anthropogenic Angst

Of the plethora of ideas to halt climate change circulating, a plan being hatched to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction is likely one of the wildest.



Among other de-extinction efforts, Colossal Laboratories & Biosciences has raised $15 million in funding to genetically engineer an elephant-mammoth hybrid using DNA extracted from frozen woolly mammoth tissue. It’s not an entirely new idea. Back in 2015, BBC reported that the complete genome of the woolly mammoth had been sequenced, paving the way for the revival of the animals thought to have been wiped out by a combination of human hunting and past climatic changes.

Colossal’s plan is to revive a woolly mammoth-like analog by engineering an elephant-mammoth hybrid through combining mammoth genes with genes from Asian elephants to form an embryo that would either be carried by a surrogate elephant or develop in an artificial womb environment. Apart from pure scientific interest, Colossal’s motivation for embarking on the initiative lies in its core value that the woolly mammoth was a “vital defender of the Earth.”

The company states that reintroducing the mammoth to the Siberian tundra will help de-accelerate permafrost melting, keep greenhouse gases sequestered within the icy steppe, restore arctic grasslands, among other benefits. These, of course, are laudable, even necessary goals; however, the single most significant factor in the loss of the permafrost and the resulting emissions is the warming planet caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions, not the extinction of the woolly mammoth. By fixing the atmospheric carbon surplus problem, the permafrost melt stops, or a least is slowed.

Lowering the level of atmospheric carbon addresses the problem of global climate change directly. Colossal researchers may be correct. Introducing a herd of mammoth hybrids to the Siberian tundra could help reduce a particular source of emissions — one that may increasingly become a major contributing factor to climate change as more of the permafrost melts. However, there’s a high degree of uncertainty in the proposal, it would take years to establish a herd and is costly.

On the other hand, if humanity played a role in driving the woolly mammoth to extinction and we have the technological means to revive a similar organism, it seems like it could be the right thing to restore what we helped destroy, especially if there would be broader ecosystem benefits. However, this conclusion would be muted if the restoration involved negative impacts on the animals in questions such as the Asian elephants used in the process, hence the option to rely on an artificial womb versus a surrogate.

However, a glaring issue with the plan is that many other species need protection or restoration. Many scientists consider our present era to be the sixth mass extinction in which anthropogenic activity is driving species to extinction at a much higher rate than the natural or background rate. The lengthy list of such species includes the African forest elephant, black rhino, Bornean orangutan, Sumatran elephant and western lowland gorilla, to name just a few.

Some countless plants and insects are also on the precipice of the extinction abyss, including bees that researchers found dropped by 25% in species abundance between 2006 and 2015, compared to bee diversity found in the 1990s, Bloomberg reported. It turns out that despite being very small, bees keep many other organisms alive, including crops essential to feeding humanity’s 7.9 billion people. So if bees vanished, it would likely trigger a catastrophic co-extinction event.


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Colossal isn’t solely concerned with the woolly mammoth, but that’s where the funding is currently going — to bring back the enormous beast within five years. If the company is successful, it will certainly be interesting to see what happens. And that may be part of the point. Permafrost aside, the woolly mammoth conjures images of Earth’s unspoiled past, teeming with exotic life on a planet still ripe for exploitation. We can’t get that planet back, but we may be able to resurrect a symbol of the pristine past — a creature to assuage our existential angst about our present and future condition.

The reemergence of the woolly mammoth would likely spark interest and even tourism exceeding that of the Yellowstone National Park wolf reintroduction. What’s to stop the expensively engineered mammoth-elephant hybrid from being hunted to re-extinction? Not much considering that Yellowstone wolf hunting is back in season, and especially considering that mammoth tusk collection is now in vogue thanks to the thawing permafrost exposing the spoils for illegal trading.

The Siberian tundra is also not what it used to be back when mammoths roamed, raising the question of whether the region is still suitable habitat for the animals. Like the rest of the globe, Siberia is also considerably warmer than it used to be, is plagued by enormous wildfires and carries the marks of climate change, with craters dotting the landscape likely caused by methane blowouts.

Against this backdrop, bringing back woolly mammoths will be fraught with issues, many of them unforeseeable, and their presence may provide more of a salve for our psyches than for climate change.


 

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