Want to Bring Back the Mammoth? Not So Fast

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Last week, scientists, philosophers, and legal experts entered the debate dome—OK, the LeFrak Theater—to explore the thorny issue of de-extinction for the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate.

 

Front view of mammoth skeleton located in the Paul and Irma Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals in the Museum.

A mammoth fossil in the Museum's fourth-floor fossil halls.

© AMNH/D. Finnin


How close are we to making this sci-fi premise a reality? And even if we can—should we? The distinguished panel tackled each of these questions and much more. Below, some highlights from this spirited scientific salon hosted by Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson.

 

Consider the Mammophant

The woolly mammoth is a favorite candidate for de-extinction—who wouldn’t like see these furry giants wondering around Alaska?

 

Illustration of five wooly mammoths walking across a snow-covered field.

A rendering of the woolly mammoth by illustrator Charles Knight. 

Courtesy of C.R. Knight/Wikimedia Commons


Mammoths happen to have a huge advantage in the de-extinction game: a close relative, the Asian elephant, which could gestate a mammoth embryo. The modern species would make such an embryo possible in the first place, by providing genetic material to fill in the many, many gaps in ancient mammoth DNA. 

But there’s the catch. These animals wouldn’t be mammoths, exactly. They’d be elephant-mammoth hybrids—mammophants.

“We can't clone it, so we're going to have to cut and paste our way from an elephant to a mammoth,” said Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary molecular biologist who wrote a book on the subject in 2015.

 

A person sits next to life-sized models of Asian elephants in the Museum's Hall of Asian Mammals.

Modern Asian elephants are closely related to the extinct woolly mammoth. 

© AMNH/D. Finnin


…and Now From a Legal Perspective

Cutting-and-pasting raises its own challenges, pointed out Hank Greely, a law professor at Stanford University who specializes in the ethical, legal, and social implications of scientific advances.

“One of the toughest moral issues about de-extinction is animal welfare,” said Greely. “How many maimed, deformed, stillborn, quasi-mammoth, quasi-elephants is it worth to bring back a sort-of mammoth? There are actually laws in this country, the Animal Welfare Act, that deal with some of those issues.”

Even a healthy sort-of mammoth could raise legal issues. If you actually brought a mammoth back, would it be an endangered species? That may seem like a dumb question, but the law is full of dumb questions,” said Greely.

 

Illustration of side view of a wooly mammoth.

An early scientific illustration of the woolly mammoth. 

Courtesy of The British Library/F. Ratzel


You Can’t Have Just One

Say you were able to create an embryo, gestate it inside an Asian elephant—a 22-month process, by the way—and welcome a healthy mammophant baby. Now what? Is it enough to bring back just one animal?

“We can't think that we're just going to make this one—one elephant-mammoth hybrid—and release it,” said Shapiro. “We need decades of making multiple individuals…to create a population that’s capable of surviving on its own in a native and natural habitat. And this is part of why it’s so hard.”

 

Small diorama shows four mammoths on muddy field with snow-capped mountains in the background.

Mammoth models seen in one of the Museum's miniature dioramas.

© AMNH/C. Chesek


Engineering Invasive Species

Speaking of natural habitats, how would we go about reintroducing these new animals to a modern ecosystem that last hosted their close relatives thousands of years ago? According to Museum Curator Ross MacPhee, releasing mammophants into the wild would be yet another example of humans behaving badly.

It's the same thing as introducing species into places where they ought not to be—the goats in the Galápagos, the rodents and the cats and so forth all over the world on the world's islands. They shouldn't be there,” said MacPhee. “We're responsible for having done it [for modern species]. It has an effect on the flora and the fauna of these places. My feeling is that we have a continuing obligation to correct that to the degree possible, and that does not include making new things.”

Watch the full debate to learn more about the scientific obstacles and ethical dilemmas that surround bringing mammoths and other extinct animals back into existence—and when you might be able to visit them in a “Pleistocene Park.” 

 


And if you’d rather just listen on the go, download the podcast.