When people think of prehistoric animal species that have gone extinct, the woolly mammoth usually comes to mind. But the woolly mammoth may soon be making a comeback, as scientists have worked tirelessly to bring woolly mammoths back into existence through genetic means.
The main figure behind this initiative is Dr. George Church, a professor at Harvard University who studies a variety of scientific disciplines, including genetics and molecular engineering. He made significant progress in his attempts to resurrect the woolly mammoth as far back as 2015, when he and his colleagues managed to copy the animal’s genome and place it within that of an Asian elephant.
Since then, Church has only gotten closer to achieving his dream. In September of this year, he launched a new startup company named Colossal, which aims to work toward the return of the mammoth using its $15 million USD in private funding. Technically, though, the startup is not attempting to produce a mammoth proper, but rather a special kind of elephant, known as a “mammophant,” that can withstand the cold and sports the mammoth’s biological makeup.
According to the company, it may be able to produce its first calf in around six years, which is shockingly close. But to get there, Colossal will need quite a bit more funding than the $15 million USD it currently has. Church has stated that, at the moment, the company may only have enough funding to produce an embryo rather than a full calf.
Is reviving the woolly mammoth a good idea?
All of this may sound like an amazing prospect, but not everyone is on board with the idea. For years, scientists have debated whether or not we have any business bringing back the woolly mammoth, as there are a few practical and ethical questions regarding the initiative that are worth considering.
One major point of contention among scientists is whether or not reintroducing mammoths into the ecosystem can adequately address climate change. Church and others like him believe that it very well could, mainly because they used to play a crucial role in maintaining permafrost in the soil. They accomplished this by clearing away snow so that the soil could be exposed to the cold air.
The mammoths’ extinction meant there was little that could prevent the snow from piling up over time, which caused the permafrost to grow warmer. This led to the permafrost emitting more greenhouse gases that contributed to the warming of the planet. Proponents of what many call “de-extinction” believe that if mammoths or a similar animal were incorporated into today’s ecosystem, then they could help keep the permafrost, and by extension, the greenhouse gases, in check.
Can our current ecosystem accommodate these creatures?
Other scientists do not believe that mammoths alone can make a significant impact on greenhouse gases. They assume that the ecosystem had plenty of time to adapt to the mammoth’s extinction, at least to an extent, which means there may not be an ecological gap significant enough to warrant the animal’s return.
Using the genome of the Asian elephant to produce the mammophant, as Church and his supporters plan to do, may create some potential complications. After all, the Asian elephant mostly lives in warm, tropical environments, and its genome would be used for an animal that is meant to survive in the bitter cold. This, combined with today’s drastically different ecosystem compared to that of thousands of years ago, means that it is uncertain whether the mammophant would be able to survive in its intended habitat.
Critics of this revival project also worry about the potential harm that introducing mammophants into the environment could do to the ecosystem. They argue that not only could these animals disrupt natural food chains, but they could also end up posing a threat to some of today’s species.
Proponents of the revival efforts do not see this as a major concern, mainly because there is evidence that reintroducing animals into certain environments can bring about positive change. One of the most prominent examples of this occurred in the 1990s when scientists brought wolves back into Yellowstone after they had been wiped out in the area for decades. Their reintroduction contributed to the thriving of aspen trees, the stabilization of river banks, and the return of several species in the area, including songbirds, foxes, and beavers. Analysts believe that a similar situation could occur if mammoths were brought back into the Arctic.
The morality and practicality of “de-extinction”
Regarding moral implications, critics of “de-extinction” have mentioned that mammoths and elephants are intelligent, social animals. Because of this, an elephant-mammoth hybrid may not do well behaviorally if placed into an environment that bears little resemblance to elephants’ current habitats. Additionally, the process of producing mammoths necessitates keeping several Asian elephants in captivity, which they are known to struggle with behaviorally.
Perhaps the most significant criticism certain analysts have levied at the “de-extinction” efforts is that they divert valuable resources away from other, arguably more important conservation goals. As mentioned before, it will take well over $15 million USD worth of funding to produce the first full mammophant calf, and if Colossal wants these animals to fulfill the same ecological roles they did years ago, then they will need to produce way more than just one calf.
Meanwhile, there are thousands of endangered species living today that face a very real threat of extinction, and it takes an enormous amount of funding and resources to protect just one of them. With this in mind, many analysts question the practicality of diverting attention away from these struggling species to focus on a single type of animal that has already been extinct for thousands of years.
Even analysts in favor of bringing back the mammoth admit that scientists need to carefully consider whether this initiative could harm efforts to save existing species. Still, they believe that “de-extinction” efforts should not be completely left off the table, especially since the costs of the technologies associated with these efforts will likely decrease in the future.
What conclusions can be drawn?
The debate surrounding the “de-extinction” of the woolly mammoth will not subside anytime soon, and there are valid reasons as to why. On one hand, it is easy to sympathize with the goals of Church and his supporters. Not only is there an enticing novelty to seeing long-extinct animals roam the Earth once again, but their revival could very well have a positive impact on our ecosystem, a perspective that the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone validates. On the other hand, it is also understandable that other analysts and scientists would feel trepidation about “de-extinction’s” potential effects on our ecosystems, including the well-being of other animals. Of course, it is difficult to know for sure exactly what effects the woolly mammoth’s revival will have until it actually happens.
Ultimately, though, it all comes down to whether these “de-extinction” efforts will be worth the extensive resources necessary to fund them, and at the moment, it seems like the answer to that question has to be “no.” There are a seemingly endless number of environmental issues vying for our attention, particularly when it comes to endangered species, and any amount of funding that goes toward addressing these problems is precious. Reviving the woolly mammoth may or may not bring about positive environmental change, but focusing on more immediately achievable conservation projects would probably benefit the environment more overall.
This does not mean that scientists should take all of the progress made with their mammoth revival projects and dump it in the trash. The incredible advances made with genetic engineering and cloning technologies could be used to benefit currently endangered species, especially ones that do well in captivity. With smart allocations of resources and a whole lot of tenacity, scientists can shape the biodiversity of our planet for the better.
What are your thoughts on the current efforts to resurrect the woolly mammoth? Should scientists strive toward achieving this goal, or should they focus on other conservation projects instead? Let us know in the comments below!