Bring back the mammoth?!
Scientists in the US, South Korea and Russia are researching the possibility to bring back the wooly mammoth. The wooly mammoth walked the ice-age plains and forests of Northern Asia, Europe and North America before it became extinct just around 5000 years ago. The main reason for its push into oblivion was the rapid rise of Homo sapiens equipped with increasingly superior technology, which enabled them to hunt down more and more hairy giants and follow them to their last escapes in Siberia and Alaska. In addition, climate change seems to have contributed to its disappearance. The last mammoth population, on Wrangel Island in the Arctic sea, became extinct just 4000 years ago, at the time when the great pyramids in ancient Egypt were built.
The wooly mammoth was more closely related to the Asian elephant than to the African elephant, it could grow up to 6 tons and had a shoulder height of up to 3.4 meters. The Asian elephant of today can make it to just 4.5 tons. Because the giant plant eaters lived in cold areas, we found a number of frozen corpses in the permafrost of the Siberian Tundra. Out of the hair and the soft tissue of the mummified bodies, scientists are able to extract the DNA of the wooly mammoth. This could make it possible either to clone the extinct species or to create a hybrid between the wooly mammoth and the Asian elephant, which shows the main features of the mammoth. It is more likely that the scientists will go the second way because it seems easier to achieve using the new gene-editing tool CRISPR-CAS. Scientists from the Havard team have already achieved to edit elephant DNA with several specific features of the mammoth, like the smaller ears, the wooly hair, higher fat percentage and the specific blood that is adapted to colder climates. Until now they limited themselves to the genetically level and did not go further like to insert this hybrid DNA into an elephant egg. The Harvard team which is headed by molecular-engineer Prof. Church plans to grow the first mammoth-elephant hybrid embryo not in the womb of a female Asian elephant (as another team from South Korea and Russia does) but inside an artificial womb. They came up with this plan because they do not want to put the female elephant at risk, especially because Asian elephants are also an endangered species.
It is obvious that in the soon future we will be able to re-erect the mammoth from the grave. It seems to be relatively easy to produce a new species that will look nearly identical to the historical wooly mammoth. So much about the scientific hard-facts. But should we actually bring the hairy giants back? Many members of the scientific community argue that we should not focus so much on bringing back extinct species but rather focus on saving the ones that are threatened by extinction today. This argument is a modification of an age-old moralist argument that wants to undermine scientific progress and research with the point that the world today is ugly. Should we focus on going to outer space on spend billions doing it while at the same time people die from hunger? Should we really research about the cure for Alzheimer disease while millions cannot afford anti-HIV medication? Should we not focus all our energy and resources on the worst threats humankind, like climate change, population growth, poverty and diseases? First, these are unrealistic questions because our economy and scientific research is not planned but determined mostly by the initiative of private cooperations and their interests. Even if that would not be the case, we need to see that if we achieve a breakthrough in one field of science this will also affect other aspects of research. The space industry for example is responsible for many innovations that are helping us in everyday live and are used not just outside our orbit. It is also important to put clear that the development of a space industry, the resurrection of extinct species or the research in various fields are not the main reason for hunger poverty and ecological disaster. For example just in the last year, the military budget of our small planet amounted to 1686 billion dollars (1686 000 000 000$).
Another much better argument against de-extincting the mammoth is that the first individuals will not have mammoth parents or friends. That might be problematic given the fact that elephants are very social animals that live in groups, which close social bounds between the individuals. It is likely that the first mammoth will be brought up in a group of Asian elephants to the point in which there are enough mammoth to form a mammoth-only herd. This will lead to the point that we cannot be sure that the new mammoths or hybrids will ever develop the social pattern and behavior of the “historical” mammoth. On the other hand are Asian elephants much closer related to the wooly mammoth than to African elephants and the existing two elephant species don’t seem to behave so much different from each other although Asian elephants tend to live in smaller groups (4-8) than African elephants (8-10). Both species live in herd that are led by old female matriarchs, they are both the biggest land animal on their continent with nearly no natural enemies and occupy a similar function in both of their ecosystems. It is not too risky to argue that the wooly mammoth will behave in a similar way than Asian elephants do today, since it is genetically closer related to the Asian elephant than the two species of African elephants of today (the Savanna elephant and the Forest elephant).
However, is it safe to re-introduce an extinct species in an existing ecosystem like the Tundra and the Subarctic Forests of Alaska and Russia? Russia already build a Pleistocene Park in Yakutia, it is a 16 square kilometers big research area, which is dedicated to restore the mammoth-steppe ecosystem. Since 1988 they reintroduced bisons, horses, reindeers, musk oxen and moose to the area, they plan to introduce mammoths to the fenced area when they will be back from the dead. The bigger plan of the project is to reestablish the original ecosystem of the Pleistocene that was spread far over the norther hemisphere, which was characterized by high animal density, and a high rate of bio cycling. The reintroduction of the wooly mammoth to the modern ecosystems could be tested in the Pleistocene Park without harming existing ecosystems. Nevertheless, will the mammoths not break out and become invasive species like foxes and rabbits became in Australia? Mammoths are big, relatively slow animals which have a slow circle of reproduction (that’s the reason why they became extinct in the first place), it is highly unlikely if not to say completely ruled out that mammoths can become an invasive species in the vast forests and plains of Siberia or North America. What is more likely is that they would create a more diverse ecosystem enabling more species to establish themselves and some scientists even believe that they could contribute to a deceleration of the effects of global warming in the area.
But is it in principle okay to resurrect extinct species and reestablish them in existing ecosystems? Do we not play god with Mother Nature? If we like it or not – we are already gods to Mother Nature! And not just since we manipulate the genome of various species. It is a complete illusion to think that we can limit ourselves to moderate interventions in various ecosystems. We did not just manipulate dogs, cattle, chickens and pigs for our personal benefit since at least ten thousand years, we changed to landscape of not just one continent upside down and the mammoth was not the first species that we pushed into the “eternal grave” and this will continue – if we like it or not (I personally have my problems with this development). The fauna and flora of Australia and America was not only completely shattered when the white settlers set foot on these continents, but also when the indigenous humans of the continents colonized them. With systematic fires, they created “managed landscapes” that made it easier for them to hunt large animals. The wild horse of North America along with a number of other species did not survive this development. In Australia, most of the large land mammals were pushed into oblivion by the first humans to arrive at the continent. Many people will say: “But the mammoth became extinct thousands and thousands of years ago – too much time has passed!” The mammoth is a symbol for this topic, but it is not the only animal that we could bring back. Scientists try to breed a species that is similar to the Aurochs – an extinct wild cattle that lived till the 17th century in Europe. Today there are several projects in different European countries that are trying to reestablish this magnificent creature to our forests. The Tasmanian tiger of which the last animal died in 1936 is also a candidate for de-extinction as well as the Quagga (a plain zebra of Southern Africa which lived till the 19th century), the Dodo the flightless bird that inhabited Mauritius and the Moa, a giant bird similar to an ostrich or Rhea which could grow up to 4 meters and lived in New Zealand till the 14th century.
But where does it stop? Should we try to create dinosaurs like in “Jurassic Park”? Although we are not able to do this at the time, this might change in the next 100 years. We could combine the DNA of Reptiles and birds, change some parts to create creatures that will resemble Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. We could even create completely new species similar to the chimera of the Greek myths (a beast that was part lion, part goat and part dragon). However, should we? I think should limit our genetic “creativity” and ourselves for foreseeable future to bring back animals that we as humans drove to extinction. I think we should not introduce “design” species or animals that died millions of years ago to the natural ecosystems that exist today. The question if we will create new species like in “Jurassic Park” is connected to the question if the humans of the future will still build an enjoy zoos as we do today. If we manage to overcome the basic problems of today like poverty, hunger, climate change and the energy problem, we might evolve to a point where we do not enjoy to show our children animals behind fences. There is a distant question, I do not want to address here, but that will need an answer one day. This far-fetched philosophic question is: should we try to systematically spread live in the universe? Should we create moons and planets who are inhabited not by organisms that can be found on earth but by organisms that were created by us? In this way, we would become gods, in the definition of most of the old religions.
Nevertheless, if we do not engineer new species or try to bring back the dinosaurs yet this has nothing to do with us rejecting to play god. We play god and we will continue to do so, we would just decide to limit our manipulation of existing species and ecosystems to a degree that we will decide in the future. However, if we already decided to play god – why not try to be a good one instead of an angry Old Testament god that decides to extinct many animals for the sins of humankind? Why are we allowed to extinct the mammoth but not bring it back? Would it not be fair to try to be responsible for our deeds and not just feel sorry but to actively try to correct them? We need to change from unconsciously or negligently harming the nature and the various ecosystems to actively protecting them and to try to create diverse ecosystems, even if we already made them disappear. Would it not be great to see the mighty wooly mammoth again walk in the plains of Siberia, the Tasmanian tiger hunt in the undergrowth or the Dodos breed again on Mauritius? While we will mostly need to tell our children and grandchildren that when we were born this and that animals could be found in the forests but the now we can see it only in museums. Would it not be awesome to change the direction of that conversation, to tell them: “When I was born there were mammoths only museums, but now we can visit them in their natural home!”