Bringing Back the Woolly Mammoth

The de-extinction of the woolly mammoth is an interesting topic came up in class last week, and it was difficult for me to understand why anyone would want to spend so much time and so many resources on this. It seems like a lost cause right? It’s been gone for 10,000 years, is it even possible? Why bother bringing them back when the world is so different now and their habitat (the mammoth steppe) is completely gone?

The reason that the tundra is the desolate and relatively un-vegetated land that it is, is because the grazers that used to inhabit the land are gone. Grazers are key to maintaining grassland because they stimulate the growth of the plants and turn and fertilize the soil. The woolly mammoths were a major contribution to the grazing of the mammoth steppe and the general balance of the ecosystem at the time. Without them, the ecosystem underwent great changes, eventually reaching a new equilibrium. This is just a small example of the dynamic equilibrium of the Earth, everything is interconnected and things are always changing.

Research shows that even after being extinct for 10,000 years, re-introducing the woolly mammoth to the Tundra will convert it to the grassland/steppe that it was during the Pleistocene (the time of the woolly mammoth). Why would we want to change this landscape? If the Earth is always changing and reaching new equilibriums, why would we disrupt this? To answer this, is not simple, and involves some background explanation.

It is commonly accepted that we have entered the geologic period known as the Anthropocene, defined as “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” The main issue facing the tundra is permafrost thawing and is most likely human-driven. It is a simple feedback (when isolated): increased CO2 in the atmosphere increases surface temperatures which increases permafrost thawing. This permafrost contains CO2 that has been frozen in the soils for many years from the decaying of plant material. Therefore, thawing permafrost will release more CO2 into the atmosphere, increasing surface temperatures, thawing more permafrost and so on.

The third (current) phase of the Anthropocene is defined as humans realizing the damage they have done to Earth System, and are in a panic trying to find the quickest ways to repair the damage. At the onset of global fossil fuel use, the true effects of the intensive exploitation of these resources were not known. However, science has advanced greatly since then, and we have begun to notice trends in certain things such as the massive rate of increase of atmospheric CO2 and surface temperatures. Once these damages were realized, a sudden urgency has overcome the population to try and reverse these damages however possible. The possibilities of what we do next are as follows:

  • Business as usual, continuing on, developing at the same rate and not making any changes to our way of life to reduce environmental impact;
  • Mitigation, which consists of taking drastic measures to prevent any further damage to the Earth by developing alternative (greener) sources of energy and changing our consumption patterns, acting in a more sustainable manner;
  • Geo-engineering, that is, developing intensive methods of reversing the damage we have caused. This is basically further manipulation of the Earth System to undo the damages we have caused by manipulating the system.

The re-introduction of woolly mammoths to the tundra is an example of geo-engineering. It involves modifying the balance of an entire ecosystem to reverse the damage that we have caused to it. As crazy as it may seem, it could actually work. It involves producing new, genetically diverse and fertile mammoths from tissues that are tens of thousands of years old. Bioengineers have been focusing on modifying the genome of Asian elephants to match that of the woolly mammoth. The adaptations that it will acquire include extra fat and fur to enable it to survive in the cold tundra climate, essentially turning it into a modern-day woolly mammoth.

Changes to the Asian elephant to become a wolly mammoth

What exactly could bringing back the mammoth steppe of the Pleistocene do? Quite a bit actually. Mammoths are said to be the keystone species of the ecosystem trying to be revived, meaning that it is an organism that plays a crucial role in how an ecosystem functions. When using an ecosystem approach, we can recall that aspects of an ecosystem are interconnected and everything affects everything. Putting mammoths in the tundra is not JUST putting mammoths in the tundra. As mentioned previously, the re-introduction of grazers to the tundra will convert it to grassland (the mammoth steppe). The grass will insulate the permafrost, decreasing the rate of thawing, and thus the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. In addition, all the new vegetation will remove CO2 from the atmosphere. More vegetation also means more life and higher biodiversity. Increasing biodiversity increases resilience in ecosystems, decreasing the likelihood of future extinctions and drastic changes from catastrophic events.

Not considering any of the ethics behind the de-extinction of the woolly mammoth, it is sounding like a pretty good idea right now. From a more realistic perspective, it is perhaps not the greatest and most practical idea.  It requires a tremendous amount of research, money and resources, going toward something that may not even work. There has been no actual success in de-extinction so far, the closest example to a success being the Pyrenean Ibex in 2009 that died after 7 minutes from lung defects. All this effort could be going to saving many other species from extinction or ecosystem restoration, which has a much higher success rate and could be more useful.

This leaves us with the main question, is it really worth it? In theory, bringing back the woolly mammoth is not a terrible idea at all, and if it is possible, it has potential to do great things. There is also a large chance of complete failure and tremendous uncertainty to the chain of effects. Whether it is really worth it or not, at this point, just seems to be a matter of opinion.




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