‘Why I believe we should bring back mammoths’

Close-up: This mammoth carcass sits outside the Shemanovsky Museum in Russia. © F. Latreille
by Beth Shapiro

Beth Shapiro is an American evolutionary biologist who specialises in analysing the DNA of extinct species. She has argued the benefits – and dangers – of de-extinction.

The science of ‘de-extinction’ – the revival of extinct species – is a growing but controversial field. Evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro argues it could help tackle climate change.

It’s not possible to clone extinct species. Cloning requires intact living cells. No extinct species, even frozen mammoth mummies dug up from Siberia, have intact cells. No cells, no clone.

Biotechnology, however, might have another solution for bringing extinct species, or at least traits belonging to extinct species, back to life. We can sequence the genome of the passenger pigeon. We can compare that to the genome of its closest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon.

And then we can go into that band-tailed pigeon genome and make all of the edits in that genome necessary to turn that band-tailed pigeon genome into a passenger pigeon genome. And then use that to make the passenger pigeon. Or billions. Which brings me to why it’s a terrible idea.

“Sergei’s plan is to bring back mammoths and wooly rhinos and giant bears and have people come and visit them”

Can you imagine driving around in your car when all of a sudden a flock of a billion birds flies overhead? You might regret having recently washed your car. It is tough to imagine the environmental consequences of bringing back a billion passenger pigeons. Since they’ve been extinct, cities, towns, farms, highways have all grown. Other species have come in and taken their place. Where are these birds going to go in this very changed world?

The mammoth, however, might be a different story. The Siberian tundra is very low in productivity and can’t support very many grazing herbivores. I have a friend, Sergei Zimov, who runs a park in northeastern Siberia. He calls it Pleistocene Park. His plan is to bring back all of the Pleistocene animals – like mammoths and wooly rhinos and giant bears and giant beavers – and have people come and visit them. Kind of like Jurassic Park but without the disaster. Hopefully.

So far, Sergei has populated his park with bison and horses and musk ox and four species of deer. And he’s noticed something. Where these animals are grazing, where they’re rooting up the ground and recycling nutrients, they have transformed that tundra into rich grassland. They have, in fact, made their own habitat.

But that’s not all. Sergei has discovered that during the winter, the soil beneath this grazed grass is 10-15 degrees Celsius cooler than the soil beneath the ungrazed grass. This means that the soil is frozen, and all the carbon that’s in that soil is trapped there, whereas the carbon in the thawed soil is released into the atmosphere.

Imagine this on a bigger scale. The atmosphere right now has about 850 gigatons of carbon. Scientists estimate that there are nearly 1,400 gigatons of carbon locked away in the Arctic permafrost right now. If we can bring back mammoths, or elephants that have been genetically engineered to live in Siberia, could we keep some of that carbon in the ground and slow the rate of accumulation of greenhouse gases?

It’s hard to imagine that genetically engineered animals would be the solution to the climate crisis. But they are a possibility, and one that brings us hope. De-extinction is an example of some type of biotechnology or technology that you might use to be able to change our future.

Strategies for dealing with climate change and the extinction crisis and all the other crises we hear about today tend to focus on preserving the status quo. But why should we be satisfied with the status quo? Since we can, why not use science and technology to actually make the world a better place to live, not just a better-than-the-experts-predict kind of place? Passivity and cynicism are passé. It’s time to get involved.

You Decide

  1. Should we concentrate on conserving endangered species, rather than reviving extinct ones?

Activities

  1. Pick either an extinct or an endangered species that you like. Design a poster, arguing why that species should be revived or protected. Include pictures and facts.

Word Watch

Siberia
A vast region in Russia, with a low population density and very cold winters.
Sequence the genome
An organism’s genome is its entire set of genes or genetic material. ‘Genome sequencing’ is a process, carried out in a laboratory, which determines all the genetic information of an organism.
Passenger pigeon
A North American pigeon, now extinct. It is known for migrating in huge flocks. The pigeon was hunted for its meat, which hastened its extinction; what is thought to be the last one died in a zoo in 1914.
Mammoth
A large elephant, now extinct, which lived in the Pleistocene epoch. It is known for its long curved tusks and thick hair. In March 2015, scientists at Harvard University successfully inserted its DNA (taken from a frozen mammoth) into the genes of an elephant.
Tundra
A vast terrain where it is too cold for trees to grow. A large stretch of northern Siberia is tundra.
Pleistocene
The epoch lasting from 1,640,000 to about 10,000 years ago. It saw great fluctuations in the world’s temperature, which caused several ice ages.