Back From The Dead: The Return of The Mammoth?


Madisyn Brown-Binford, Writer | Editor: Oluwadamilola Afe

Science is making new breakthroughs. Almost as if they control the tides of life and death, Russian scientists Sergey and Nikita Zimov are bringing back a long extinct Pleistocene-era Mammoth. This may come as an absolute delight to many prehistoric connoisseurs–and an absolute nightmare to anybody who enjoys watching the Jurassic Park films. Either way, the effects and implications of such an endeavor are bound to change the world as we know it. Why would science even go this far? How will this affect ecosystems? If this does succeed, what will be the next step? Will we be able to get our very own Jurassic Park?

What is a mammoth?

The Merriam-Webster defines the mammoth as “any of a genus (Mammuthus) of extinct Pleistocene mammals of the elephant family distinguished from recent elephants by highly ridged molars, usually large size, very long tusks that curve upward, and well-developed body hair”. In English, a mammoth is a hairy elephant with a longer tusk than the modern edition.

The oldest fossils that prove the existence of Mammoths were of the African mammoth, which lived 3 to 4 million years ago. The mammoth in question for the Zimov pair is the woolly mammoth. The woolly mammoth is a descendant of the African mammoth. They’re a product of the mammoth species moving over to Eurasia and adaptations to the colder climates. The woolly mammoth went extinct around 10,000 years ago. 

Mammoths, being the mothers of the modern day elephant, ate very similarly to them. Their diets consisted of large amounts of vegetation and water. This made them wonderful for transporting nutrients across their grazing lands through their dung. 

What is the purpose? 

So, why bring the woolly mammoth back? If the habitats where they once roamed those 10,000 years ago are fading away, what is the purpose of bringing them back? The pessimistic mind would believe they are only returning to die off once more. Climate change would finish the job and end the mammoth once more, as that was the original killer of the mammoth.

But, what if the tables were turning this time? What if the woolly mammoth beat climate change this time? The motive behind bringing the mammoth back is to combat the effects of climate change and the melting of permafrost.

Currently, in tundras there are very minimal large roamers. The ecosystems there consist of many smaller creatures that feed off of bushes and scavenge. This is in direct contrast to how the system functioned when the woolly mammoth roamed the lands. The tundra environment had many large grazers. Whenever they would step, it would clear the large amounts of snow exposing the ground below to the freezing winter airs in the tundra. This was extremely important to the climate. 

In order to understand why, you must understand what permafrost is. Permafrost is ground that is frozen for 2 or more years straight. It does not melt even in the summer. Within permafrost, you find organic carbon from plant materials that cannot decompose. The frost will not allow them too. It takes for the frost to be gone for the plant materials to begin the process of decomposition. This decomposition releases greenhouse gasses, which in turn lead to the poisoning of the atmosphere. 

It’s bad, isn’t it? It is important for the permafrost to stay “permafrosted” for as long as possible. The heat (yes, tundra doesa receive forms of heat) from the tundra summers is increasing, melting the permafrost each year. The cold winter air needs to be capitalized upon in order to keep the permafrost cool. Yet, the air cannot reach the soil as a result of the layers of snow. Returning these large beasts to the tundra to act as snow-plowers keeps the soil frosty.

But how will they do it?

Cloning. Did you know that cloning is possible? If not (and even if you did), I would consider doing a quick google search on Dolly, the Sheep. A man named George Church and a team of Harvard scientists are planning to do Mammy, the Mammoth. Not really with that name but you get the point.

Dolly the Sheep was created when scientists spliced and edited two different DNA samples from two different breeds of sheep together. Then, they quite literally grew Dolly in a lab. The reincarnation of the woolly mammoth will be  similar. Colossal, the name the group goes by, has access to DNA samples of the mammoth. These samples were cryogenically frozen under layers of permafrost. I like to imagine the permafrost was trying to preserve its future self. Using the came concept that was used with Dolly, scientists will splice the mammoth DNA with the modern asian elephant. The elephant is suspected to be the closest relative to the mammoth that wandered the tundra all of those years ago. 

If all goes well, the Asian elephants can conceive what will be the closest creature to the extinct woolly mammoth. Then, in due time, the mammoths should grow and prepare to fight the good fight against climate change. 

The Return of the Mammoth

The Zimov pair and Church are all working hard to save the environment and bring back such a legendary species. In the next few years to go, let’s pray our generation is able to embrace such a species and see it develop as a staple of the battle against climate change.