Woolly Mammoth best left dead?

By Razib Khan | November 24, 2008 12:24 am

An editorial in The New York Times, Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth?:

No one is quite sure why the woolly mammoths died out toward the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. Theories include warmer temperatures that gradually displaced the plants on which they fed, overhunting by primitive man, an accumulation of harmful genetic mutations, widespread disease, or an asteroid or comet colliding with Earth and disrupting the climate.
If scientists do bring back a few mammoths, we suspect our warming world won’t look any more hospitable than the one that did them in.

A meta-point here is that it’s great that the chattering classes devote time to scientific issues; we’re on the cusp of the age of applied biology. But a question I have is the presupposition that a warmer world would be inimical to the existence of the mammoth. After all, there is tundra, and there is glacier. It seems that some tundra would remain as the glacier retreated, following its march..
But I also decided to figure out when Woolly Mammoths speciated. From what I can tell it seems that they diverged from the Steppe Mammoth about 150,000 years ago. Fossil people can clarify or correct. I was curious about this fact because of this chart:

From what I can tell it looks like the Woolly Mammoth made it through an interglacial, one which was warmer than our own time. This is why I’m skeptical of pinning full blame on climate change as the reason behind mega-faunal extinctions, the past was volatile too.

  • Jason Malloy

    “We’re just not sure that it would be all that much fun for the mammoth.”
    So? This livejournal fart of a thought is worthy of a NYT op-ed? Call me when we stop killing billions of livestock every year, or breeding cancerous mice, and then maybe I’ll care about the hypothetical discomfort of a cloned scientific miracle animal.
    The real reason this was published is because mulling over every possible negative aspect of global warming, no matter how trivial or tenuous, is like porn to SWPLs:
    “Now we can’t clone dinosaurs because they might get uncomfortable… thanks greedy corporations!”
    Equally stupid were all the various ethical non sequiturs over at Marginal Revolution for why we should or shouldn’t bring back some neanderthals. e.g.
    “We owe it to neaderthals to bring them back because “we” killed “them”.”
    “Bringing a neanderthal back is immoral because they probably have low cognitive ability”.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    lol. yeah. a very banal response to awesome science was my first thought. what is mammoth Eudaimonia.

  • http://www.eugeneparnell.com eugene_X

    Who was the biologist who proposed we re-populate the plains of North America with lions, camels, and elephants? I can’t recall his name, but his point was that until the very, very recent geological past, all these animals lived on the North American continent. His assertion is that really it’s the human invasion from Siberia that eliminated them– obviously that’s still contested but let’s run with it for a moment. So in the name of ecosystem restoration, we should find the closest living animals and re-introduce them to re-create some kind of “base state” of the North American plains ecosystem.
    It’s a little kooky, (okay maybe more than a little) but it brings up an interesting point– if we take it as some kind of moral imperative to “restore” “degraded” habitats that have been damaged by human activity, where do we draw the starting point?
    For example, it’s easy to agree that we should restore a salmon stream to the clean water that flowed in it before a mine was opened. Few people would argue against that (except maybe the mine owners). But how far back does the statute of limitations go? Do we repopulate the Appalachians with cougars because Daniel Boone shot them all? (fine by me). The Rockies with grizzlies? (okay too). But why stop there– if we did in the mammoths, at least in part, shouldn’t we put them back? What about the cave lions of the Pleistocene, are they grandfathered in? Woolly rhinos? Ground sloths?
    Similar techniques could be used to resurrect the Tasmanian tiger, which was without a doubt driven to extinction within living memory by us humans– people of Western culture in fact. Does that carry a greater moral imperative than resurrecting mammoths, because it’s more recent?
    Personally I don’t think the moral imperative weighs either way for me. I think it would be cool to see mammoths and Tasmanian tigers in person. It’s just an interesting philosophical thought exercise.

  • http://www.eugeneparnell.com eugene_X

    I posted too soon, here is the link to a Newsday story about the American Pleistocene Park and the Wikipedia entry on its Siberian cousin.

  • paulie

    I don’t want to sound like a.. er… wooly liberal, but you can’t just bring the mammoth back into existence. Higher mammals have strong and important CULTURES. It would be like trying to bring back an extinct human race by just dumping the kids into a forest, and then expecting them to grow up and be able to speak their native language etc.

  • http://zinjanthropus.wordpress.com Zinjanthropus

    I love when journalists think they’re pointing out an ethical dilemma that the mad scientists forgot to consider.

  • http://tai-haku.blogspot.com/ tai haku

    Yeah – lets not bother because its a good excuse to feel guilty about global warming as we continue to drive our fuel-guzzling SUVs etc etc etc. I thought Sergey Zimov had already looked into the comparative ecology of now and then as part of his project in Siberia and basically concluded it should be a goer.
    Ideally of course we would be cloning Columbian or Imperial Mammoths to send to Josh Donlan and his crew to unleash on the southern USA but this’ll do.

  • Bob S

    Many of the mammoth carcasses, especially the ones with recoverable DNA, were killed by some sort of unseasonal ice storm, standing up or sitting, with flowers in their mouths and stomachs. The freeze was quick enough that their meat was preserved without the formation of large ice crystals. Heat isn’t the problem for mammoths.
    The technology (not science) for recovering a living mammoth would be very interesting, much more so than cloning Dolly.
    By the way, mammoths are bigger than African elephants, which would probably be the surrogate mothers.

  • Mark Houston

    Would a mammoth or Neanderthal, created in a lab with reconstructed nuclear DNA (what about the mitochondria DNA?), have an immune system capable of fighting off modern pathogens, which have evolved over the past 10K to 30K years in response to an ever changing environment ? Surely modern microbial strains, such as Mycobacterium bovis and Brucella abortus, delivered via contact with human livestock, would deal a severe blow to such an experiment.
    There again, genetic modification, once an infection took hold, in either mammoth or Neanderthal, could create a strain, so powerful, the end victims could in fact be ourselves. With regard to Neanderthals, this ancient hominoid relative, who would be able speak (albeit with difficulty), would be eligible to legal protection, as part of the human species. Can anyone really believe, scientists could recreate a Neanderthal, and then just keep him/her locked up in a lab cell, or even worse, a zoo. If Neanderthals truly did fail to breed with archaic humans (archaic Homo sapiens), and we are wrong to consider the French hybrids, then what about Neanderthal breeding rights, the right to a mate, and even more challenging, the right to marry and have children. Does this mean, we would have to create several Neanderthals, male and female, so that there was sufficient stock to ensure problems with inbreeding were minimised. There again, did the Neanderthals carry infectious diseases, indigenous to their species, and which did not ravage Cro-Magnon’s, due to the experience of a low density hunter gatherer population, which did not hangout together as friends or even traders, but which, could spread to modern humans, due to an imposed closeness, something not encountered 30K years ago. What would be next, if a Neanderthal fell in love with his/her, lab supervisor. Would it be acceptable for a Neanderthal to marry a Homo sapiens, and produce hybrid children (I am sure they would look French). SUCH BIG QUESTIONS.

  • http://tai-haku.blogspot.com/ tai haku

    Eugene – you’re thinking of Josh Donlan, Paul S. Martin and colleagues. Josh blogs on sb at shifting baselines btw.

  • Josh

    I am very, very wary of “repopulating” an extinct animal species. As I said before, cloning a mammoth would be a miracle of science—truly one of the greatest things humanity has ever done. But doing much more than that would not really be worthwhile. I can’t see the virtue in repopulating the tundra with mammoths, given what we know about species invasions. Making a few mammoths and keeping them in zoos would be great novelty, but I think it would eventually wear off.
    Oh well.

  • Jason Malloy

    I think we should clone Samaritans and reintroduce them into the wild. Here is an ancient biblical race synonymous with the word ‘kind’, and we’ve somehow failed them and driven them to extinction. We probably made whatever crappy desert they call home too hot to survive in anymore with all our global warming.

  • Ian

    “Fossil people can clarify or correct”
    Razib I don’t think fossil people will be much help. Perhaps living people might offer some useful advice….
    (OK you can slap me now).

  • http://www.complexinterplay.blogspot.com Rafe

    I had a memorable argument about this with my closest freind 5 years ago while driving to the grand canyon. He was arguing the position of extreme rewilding, were I was taking the more conservative ecological model worrying about the effect it would have on current ecosystems. I was convinced and when I later saw Zimov and Donlan I was and still am excited. From biology geek perspective the idea of cheetahs and camels roaming our parks is just fun, but the logic to me is much more convincing. Its not just a moral imperative we destroyed these species we should it put it back to rights, it is the logical conclusions from four premises I think equally obvious. Humans are the cause of huge decrease in global biodiversity, the effect of humans on the global ecology is not going to go away, all we can do is try to control what that effect is, biodiversity is good biodiverse ecological systems are more stable and overall more productive(not in terms of human lives neccesarily but in overall life produced). Following from these premises it makes sense for humans to try to undo some of the damage we have done to the environment in order to restore biodiversity which is critically important for the overall ecology of the planet.
    There are vast areas of canada, siberia and the USA that are extremely sparsely populated if africans can survive alongside elephants, lions, hippotamuses etc we should be able to survive along side appropriate megafauna as well.

  • deadpost

    If Neanderthals were recreated, the most interesting thing would be their psychology.
    What if Neanderthals were as smart as us but had different cognitive profile or propensity to culture? Then that would be interesting. An individual one of us often have enough difficulty understanding psychologies within our species (for example, men and women, Westerners and Asians (the geography of thought)… etc.) ; it would be fascinating to see from a psychological perspective, and society’s reactions to it.

  • Mark Houston

    A short article was just published in New Scientist on the possibility that an extreme case of cold adapted mitochondria uncoupling was a major cause for Neanderthal extinction, once the Ice Age retreated and warm weather returned to Europe. Mitochondria uncoupling is a process by which the mitochondria uses some fuel, from glycogen, to manufacture heat, within the mitochondria membrane. Of course, this may be the case for northern latitude Neanderthals which lived in an arctic biota; remembering that northern latitude Neanderthals show very robust adaptation to cold weather, the most dominant feature being short limbs, especially the forelimb. However, this new hypothesis does not explain why low latitude Neanderthal populations, which were clearly heat adapted, with long limbs, no different to archaic Homo sapiens populations which lived around the red sea, also became extinct at the same time as their northern latitude European relatives. As such, if this “Cold Adapted Hypothesis” is true, does this mean, that if scientists did decide to resurrect a fossil Neanderthal, would this experiment use Neanderthal mitochondria DNA alongside Neanderthal nuclear DNA, of would it be decided to use mitochondria from a modern Homo sapiens (hopefully from a cold adapted Siberian aborigine). Logically such a product, would only be only part Neanderthal, as there is no way of knowing how archaic Neanderthal nuclear DNA mixed with modern Homo sapiens mitochondria DNA would interact, and what changes to somatic design would occur from such mix of species.

  • Sandgroper

    There is a biologist in Australia who proposes to introduce Komodo Dragons to take up the niche left by the extinction of the even (much) larger Pleistocene lizard Megalania (leaving aside that the Perenti is already sizeable, although nowhere near the size of a Komodo Dragon).
    Of course, he does make the point that Aussies would have to make suitable lifestyle adjustments to allow for being preyed on by the Dragons. Which is slightly tricky, because they are ambush hunters whose bite is lethal due to virulent bacteria in their mouths (and possibly also because they are mildly venomous), so they don’t have to kill their prey, just get a bite at it and then track it until it drops dead. How appropriate that is depends on viewpoint, I suppose.
    But it seems to raise another question – if Megalania became extinct due to climate change, rather than due to the occupation of Australia by Aboriginal people (subject of hot debate), or some combination thereof, why would there be a niche for the Komodo Dragons to fill?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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