Can Bringing Back The Woolly Mammoth Save the Planet?

We could bring the Woolly Mammoth back from extinction.


But why would we want to do that? The ice age they thrived in disappeared long ago — transformed by thousands of years of natural climate change. They’d have nowhere to go in the wild.

And to go through all that work just to put them in a zoo seems kinda pointless.

But some researchers think that by re-introducing the Woolly Mammoth to its former stomping grounds, they could help us stop catastrophic climate change.

This was the Pleistocene. The planet was much colder — by as much as 10 degrees. Much of the northern hemisphere lay buried under miles of continent-wide ice sheets. And humanity had just begun its slow occupation of the world.

This was the world of the Woolly Mammoth. The end of their world, in fact.

With the recession of the world’s glaciers and the intrusion of human hunting parties, the Woolly Mammoth would soon be extinct. Although a small population hung on in the northern islands of Siberia well into the time of the Pharaohs of Egypt, the world they inhabited was already long gone.

But there is an ambitious geoengineering project happening in Siberia today with the intention of resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth.

Like the fictional Jurassic Park, it aims to resurrect an extinct ecosystem.

But Pleistocene Park is not a theme park. It’s a science experiment attempting to slow global climate change.

Much of Siberia today is made up of dense remote forests, growing in soft mossy ground. But back in the Pleistocene, it was grassland. Wide open grasslands were the dominant feature in the Earth’s landscape back then.

This is where the Woolly Mammoth thrived.

In the intervening millennia as the climate changed, these grasslands gave away to other ecosystems. In the lifetime of our planet, ecosystems and habitats have always been in a state of flux. Nothing is permanent. Far from the exception, extinction and gradual change are constant.

Rising global temperatures are melting the permafrost present at these latitudes. This phenomenon is killing the trees by turning large swathes of the area into so-called “Drunken Forests” where trees begin to list drunkenly, unable to keep themselves anchored in the newly thawed soil. The warming permafrost also threatens to exacerbate global warming by releasing stores of frozen carbon and methane trapped for eons in the underlying soil.

And methane is much worse greenhouse gas than CO2. It traps about a hundred times the heat energy. A mass release of methane from the once frozen Siberian permafrost could abruptly accelerate global warming.

A large reserve of methane can be found frozen in the arctic seabed. This is a methane clathrate — basically a form of methane that is trapped in crystalline ice at the bottom of the polar seas. An unchecked greenhouse effect could warm up the oceans enough to melt the ice and send the methane shooting into the atmosphere.

If this happened, there’d be no feasible way to stop it. Like trying to put a fired bullet back into the chamber of a gun.

Hence, Clathrate Gun.

This has probably happened a couple times in the Earth’s past. The largest extinction event in the history of the planet — the Permian-Triassic Extinction where 95% of all life on Earth perished — is thought to have been caused by a Clathrate Gun event.

And there is evidence of this is happening today.

In the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, sinkholes have been found that are most likely the result of large outgassings of methane in the melting permafrost.

And that’s exactly what they are trying to do at Pleistocene Park.

Located in the northern reaches of Siberia, Pleistocene Park has been slowly trying to re-introduce the grassland habitat of 12,000 years ago for 40 years now. Grassland provides a much better sink for extracting and storing greenhouse gases. And it has a higher albedo — meaning it reflects more sunlight than a typical forest — and thus keeps the planet cooler.

These grassland ecosystems may have played a crucial role in regulating the waves of glaciation that inundated our planet over the eons. As the grassland flourished, the planet cooled. And when the planet became too cold, the grassland withered, reducing the planet’s albedo and releasing its store of carbon back into the atmosphere, allowing the planet to warm up again.

But the best way to maintain a grassland ecosystem is to have a high density population of herbivores.

Along with a variety of other species, the Woolly Mammoth played a critical part in cultivating the planet’s vast grasslands during the Pleistocene. They had to eat tons of vegetation and that kept rotting plant material from accumulating and releasing their carbon into the atmosphere. Like their modern day cousins, giant herds of these massive animals stomped down any growing trees and kept the forests at bay.

For now, the researchers at Pleistocene Park use ATV vehicles and heavy machinery to crush young trees and reshape the landscape — just as the Woolly Mammoth had done.

Woolly Mammoth bones have been found all over Pleistocene Park — a testament to their once ubiquity in the area. And we’ve found wooly mammoth carcasses mummified in the ice all over Siberia. Some of them are so well preserved we can extract intact strands of DNA, and hypothetically, we could use that DNA to clone them and bring them back from extinction.

We’ve been cloning mammals for over 20 years — ever since we cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996. And since Dolly we’ve cloned pigs, deers, horses, and bulls. So there’s no reason we couldn’t clone an elephant. Or a Woolly Mammoth.

But we’ve never cloned an animal as old as the Woolly Mammoth but there are a few proposed methods.

We could extract preserved DNA from a Mammoth carcass and insert it into the egg cell of its closest living relative — the Asian Elephant.

This would be a little like growing a chimpanzee inside of a human mother. But we’ve done this before.

The Pyrenean Ibex went extinct in 2000 but researchers were able to extract its DNA and insert it into the egg cell of a closely related goat. 3 years after the entire species was declared extinct, the Pyrenean Ibex was born again. But the baby only survived for a few minutes.

So far we have not found enough Woolly Mammoth DNA preserved to make this technique possible.

So alternatively, we could find some preserved sperm cells from a frozen male mammoth and use it to inseminate an Asian Elephant. The resulting baby would be a hybrid, but after several generations of this technique, an almost pure Woolly Mammoth could be created.

But frozen sperm is only viable for about 15 years. We’d have to find a way to use sperm thousands of years old.

Another method would be to modify the genome of living Asian Elephants, giving them Woolly Mammoth characteristics — like resistance to the cold, longer hair, and extra fat. This method is already being tested by Harvard Scientist, George Church, and he’s successfully inserted mammoth genes into the Asian Elephant’s genome — although they haven’t gone the extra step and created a viable embryo.

These animals would not be Woolly Mammoths though. They would be something entirely new.

How they behaved in the prehistoric past has been extensively studied but can’t be known for certain. And how they would behave today is not guaranteed. Raised by surrogate parents and scientists, these newly resurrected mammoths would have to adapt to a world radically transformed from the one they evolved in.

While Pleistocene Park’s vision is grand, we might be too naive to face the immense complexities of our planet’s ecology.

Because drastically altering the Earth’s landscape to stop global warming is a little like sticking your finger in the barrel of a gun to prevent yourself from being shot. It’d be easier and much more likely to succeed if we just took our finger off the trigger and put the gun down.

But if we continue to do so little now to stop the increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, we might be left with few alternatives.

One thing is certain: we are changing the Earth’s environment in fundamental and unpredictable ways. The largest global science experiment in human history is well underway.

Like the Woolly Mammoth, we are Pleistocene creatures. We came to be who we are in the same grasslands as they did. And like the Woolly Mammoth, our past behavior is not necessarily how we have to behave in the future. Whether we are able to correct our mistakes or adapt to a world radically transformed from the one we evolved in will be the choice we will have to make in the coming decades — with or without the Woolly Mammoths.

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