Woolly Mammoths.. Should we bring them back?

Discussion in 'Science & Society' started by Bells, Feb 17, 2017.

  1. Bells Staff Member

    A recent headline has been making the rounds over the last couple of days.. But one word stood out in just about each one..

    "De-extinctify".. "De-extinction"..

    All pertaining to the woolly mammoth.

    Scientists at Harvard University have advised that they could be 2 years away from inserting DNA from a woolly mammoth into an Asian elephant, to create a form of hybrid of a woolly mammoth.

    A Harvard University scientist told The Guardian this week that his team is only two years from resurrecting some traits of the woolly mammoth, which went extinct during the last ice age. The goal is to create an embryo that’s a hybrid of the woolly mammoth and its closest living relative, the Asian elephant.

    “Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” researcher George Church told The Guardian. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits.”

    Church explained to HuffPost last year that the process involves retrieving DNA from mammoth remains preserved on the frozen tundra, then splicing that DNA into the genome of an Asian elephant. The species are so closely related that they would be able to breed if both were alive today, Church noted.

    Other news sites have picked up on the story and all of a sudden, "de-extinctify" and "de-extinction" are buzzwords in these articles.

    From The Guardian:

    The creature, sometimes referred to as a “mammophant”, would be partly elephant, but with features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood. The mammoth genes for these traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the powerful gene-editing tool, Crispr.

    Until now, the team have stopped at the cell stage, but are now moving towards creating embryos – although, they said that it would be many years before any serious attempt at producing a living creature.

    “We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab,” said Church.

    Since starting the project in 2015 the researchers have increased the number of “edits” where mammoth DNA has been spliced into the elephant genome from 15 to 45.

    “We already know about ones to do with small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair and blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected,” he said.

    The article notes that Church presented two benefits and reasons to do this. One is to help preserve the endangered Asian elephants, even though it will be in a different form and adapted to colder weather and with smaller ears and a long fur. The other being to help delay and prevent global warming. His theory amounts to the hybrid living in the tundra regions, eating dead grass and knocking down old trees that would allow new grass and shoots to grow.

    So should we be doing this?

    Ethical concerns have been raised about this venture. Which is not surprising, given what they are proposing. One of which:

    Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, said: “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. What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by elephants?”

    Which is exceptionally valid..

    How will this hybrid animal be seen and treated by the social Asian elephant? What would happen if it was rejected?

    The global warming theory also presents other ethical issues.. The woolly mammoth has been extinct for over 4,000 years from the tundra region this hybrid animal would be made to roam - as the scientists advised it would be adapted to survive and live in that environment. The eco-system in these areas are on a knife's edge. Animals currently native and endemic to these regions would be affected by a mammoth re-entering the eco-system, eating dead grass and knocking down trees. Not to mention an increase in methane from these animals if they were re-introduced.

    From the animal's social perspective, these are very social animals. What would happen to it if it is rejected by other elephants? To allow it to adapt, it would be born in a warmer area, where it would be surrounded by Asian elephants. How would it adapt to that environment?

    Sometimes I wonder if our own needs, our own desire to see a woolly mammoth (it would be cool!), is blinding us to the reality of making an animal like a woolly mammoth, no longer extinct and bringing it back 4,000 years after it disappeared from Earth. The initial extinction of the woolly mammoth were affected by and caused by global warming, human encroachment, being hunted, loss of habitat (due to global warming and human settlements and being hunted) among others. So what would be different this time?

    And is it still a mammoth or elephant? Or something completely new and driven by a lab instead of natural evolution? Not to mention the fact that a hybrid like this could be prone to more diseases and more affected by the climate.

    So, what does everyone think? Should it be brought back as a hybrid? Or should we focus on saving the Asian elephant as the Asian elephant and leave the extinct animals, well, extinct and learn from the past? I am torn on this one. Yes, I would love to see a mammoth, even a hybrid one. But I also feel disgust at the suffering we could be subjecting his animal to, just so we can see one alive..
    ajanta likes this.
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  3. Michael 345 New year. PRESENT is 69 years old Valued Senior Member

    Yes bring it back

    Reasons not to appear to be woolly at best

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  5. Xelasnave.1947 Valued Senior Member

    Seems rather cruel.
    Imagine being an extinct human and coming back this way with a monkey housing the embryo.
    But we can overlook that to satisfy our strange idea of doing something important.
    I think we could blow up the Moon if we tried but there will be some who will protest that just because we can that does not mean we should.
    Blowing up the Moon would be a better idea.
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  7. Michael 345 New year. PRESENT is 69 years old Valued Senior Member

    Seems a streach

    If you brought back an extinct version of a human they would never know unless you explained the process to them

    Good luck explaining the process to a de-extinctioned woolly mammoth

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  8. Xelasnave.1947 Valued Senior Member

    They would work out other creatures live in groups and I suspect they would feel somewhat different.
  9. Michael 345 New year. PRESENT is 69 years old Valued Senior Member

    May be

    My original response remains do it

    And that would go for any other extinct species except bad ass bugs

    Dinosaurs √ down to a arbitrary sized species which I would consider to be needing isolation to prevent it from overrunning current species

    Do not think that dinosaurs would breed fast enough to pose a threat to local species

    I would like to see the look on Walt's face when they take him out of deep freeze and take him to Dinosaur World The Happiest Place on Mars

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  10. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    Where the hell would you put them?
    We've already displaced or killed off most of the animals that are supposed to be living now.
    There isn't any habitat left for the elephants, never mind even bigger mammoths.
  11. Michael 345 New year. PRESENT is 69 years old Valued Senior Member

    Mars as I mentioned in a previous post

    I would like to see the look on Walt's face when they take him out of deep freeze and take him to Dinosaur World The Happiest Place on Mars

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  12. sculptor Valued Senior Member


    I wonder what mammoth steaks would taste like?
  13. sideshowbob Sorry, wrong number. Valued Senior Member

    We have room on the Canadian prairies. We're being inundated by beavers and moose as it is.
  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Some questions cannot be answered with certainty. Despite all the predictions, we really won't know how this will work out until a few generations of the mammoths have established a viable population. That said, I'd vote for recreating the mammoths, even if they're only mammoth-elephant hybrids.
    The two species of elephant are among the most intelligent creatures on earth. With their size and strength (especially the African species), one alone can fend off almost any predator, and a group of them can send a tiger, lion, leopard, or even a glutton (we Yanks call 'em "wolverines") on a run for their lives.

    They don't automatically treat even a large, tough-looking animal as an enemy at first encounter.
    Again, because their size makes fear unnecessary in most confrontations, elephants tend to let the intruder make the first move and take it from there. I doubt that a mammoth, surely with a very similar personality, would do anything to make an elephant want to fight.
    Then I guess we'll need a new section in our largest zoos, to house mammoths. People will spend a fortune to see them, so the municipal government won't have to worry about the expense of building it.
    Elephants tend to socialize well with other domesticated animals, so that's probably not going to be a problem. You've heard all the jokes about the 500-lb gorilla--so how about a 15,000-lb elephant?
    Surely one of the least important questions to be resolved.

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    Hybrids are often healthier than their parents. Over the first few generations of hybridization, the strongest hybrids survive and become the ancestors of the new tribe.
    Saving the Asian elephant is the most important goal. Unlike tigers, who are being saved by Americans who keep them in clandestine spaces that are way too small (in fact there are more tigers in the USA than in the entire rest of the planet, although many are used for Oriental "medicine"). Nobody's going to be able to hide an elephant in his back yard, waiting for it to reach adulthood so they can harvest his tusks and ship them back to China.
    I understand your point of view, but I don't see why you automatically assume that he'll be miserable. As I said earlier, there's no reason to assume automatically that he won't be accepted by a pack of elephants--especially in one of the reserves for retired circus elephants in the USA and a couple of other countries.
  15. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    Woah there.

    No one said anything about the critters being fertile. That is a whole nother barrel of fish.

    The likelihood that a forced hybrid creature will be able to reproduce is pretty much zero.

    All right. Maybe my focus is too narrow. Hybridizing between separate species normally results in infertile offspring, such as mules.

    What are you thinking of when you talk about fertile hybrids?

    [ EDIT ]
    Huh. Apparently Ligers are capable of fertility...

    Last edited: Feb 17, 2017
  16. Michael 345 New year. PRESENT is 69 years old Valued Senior Member

    Never thought of Siberia

    Like chicken but on a bloody big plate
  17. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    No, you do not have the the Canadian prairies. The oil and gas companies do. They've been killing off the moose in such numbers as to put the species at risk; using up and poisoning the water so thatbeaver have no place to live and the native humans are getting twice the cancers of the general population.
    Perhaps, but not if you expect modern elephants to gestate and raise them: they can't take the climate.
    Pretty awful -- until they get a good dose of that good ol Chernobyl rad.
  18. sculptor Valued Senior Member

    The reason I thought of Siberia, is that the Russians had the idea a few years ago of setting up a preserve and recreating the mammoths.

    Anyone here ever eat elephant steaks?
  19. Randwolf Ignorance killed the cat Valued Senior Member

    I read somewhere years ago that the closest thing to eating human meat is eating elephant. I did a google search but can't find a reference.

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  20. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    These won't really be Mammoths, certainly not the ones who once roamed the Earth in the ice ages. They will be Elephants genetically modified to at least superficially resemble Mammoths.

    I'm curious how much of Mammoth DNA they have been able to sequence so far. My guess is comparatively little compared to the whole Mammoth (in more ways than one) genome. The problem is that no matter how well it's preserved, DNA that old is going to be highly fragmented. Putting it back together is like the mother of all jigsaw puzzles. So use of existing Elephant DNA would be necessary anyway, to provide a template to give molecular geneticists some idea of where it's most likely the various bits fit. (Similar to using the picture of an assembled jigsaw puzzle on the puzzle box-top.) Of course, that becomes less and less possible, the more genetic differences there are. In that regard, it appears that Mammoths are more closely related to Asian Elephants (the more docile Elephants) than either are to African Elephants. But since African Elephant DNA is the only Elephant DNA that's been completely sequenced, it would have to serve as the template. (The extinct North American Mastodons were even more distantly related.)

    Beth Shapiro's How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction, 2015 Princeton U. Press, is a very good book on precisely this subject. I bought a copy but have only skimmed through it, but it definitely makes it clear how difficult this task will be. I think that the idea that it will happen in two years is extremely optimistic.


    As to where they could live, there are vast virtually uninhabited tracts in eastern Siberia north of the Sea of Okhotsk that once were prime Mammoth habitat. The reconstructed ones would have to be introduced carefully though, since the extinct Mammoths might have had less visible adaptations to that kind of environment that weren't included in the new reengineered ones. So the design might have to be tweaked a few times before it takes.

    As sculptor says, there's already a park in eastern Siberia that is intended to take re-engineered Mammoths if and when they become available. Attempts are underway to reintroduce other animal species that lived there in the ice age and to return the vegetation to more like it once was. Right now efforts are concentrated on introducing large herbivores like Reindeer, wild Horses, Muskox and Bison. As the numbers of herbivores rise in the absence of predation, the plan is to introduce Siberian Tigers to naturally control their numbers. (At last count, there were only 562 of these wonderful but highly-endangered cold weather cats left.)



    Last edited: Feb 18, 2017
  21. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    Here's Beth Shapiro's (the author of How to Clone a Mammoth) Paleogenomics laboratory website at UC Santa Cruz


    Here's a short 7 page paper she wrote for Functional Ecology that discusses the three main ways to (maybe kinda) restore extinct species:


    Here's an even shorter little 2 page thing from 2015 that discusses Harvard's Wyss Institute's success in splicing Mammoth genes into Elephant embryos that this thread's OP is about.

    Last edited: Feb 18, 2017
  22. Bells Staff Member

    Thank for those links, Yazata!

    From what I understand, they have started at the cell stage at present and are looking to do embryonic studies with the hybrid in the next two years.

    The intent is to grow a hybrid. And as you correctly say, these would not be mammoths as such, and I don't think it would be an Indian elephant either. One wonders at the size, the ivory tusks, for example, whether it would have a coat. There are other mammoth species that are not as woolly and roamed the planes in what is now California, surprised they are not looking at those instead, since they existed in a more moderate climate. But they were also bigger, so the size issue could be a bigger factor there.
  23. sculptor Valued Senior Member


    While crushing a sprig of mountain mint this morn, (wonderful gift to my olfactories)I remembered:
    Mammoths did not live by eating grass-----('cepting those last few years while they slowly died of starvation into extinction). It has been stated that it was the invasions of grasslands into the mammoth' environment which killed them off.

    You could call it instrument bias, but until quite recently there was little understanding of the environment and plants available during the mammoths' heyday. eg: They ate forbes(which leave little or no pollen for the archaeologist to find and identify, and flowers.

    So, ignore my previous short sighted response and look for an environment lush with flowers and forbes.

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