Resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth to Save the Planet

Returning the woolly mammoth from ancient extinction may not just help them, it could also prove vital for combatting the effects of climate change.

When talking about climate change, it’s important to consider a variety of approaches to preserving and protecting the environment. One person familiar with thinking not just outside, but incredibly far away from, the box, is Ben Mezrich. Mezrich recently published a book called Woolly: The True Story Of The Quest To Revive One Of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Species, detailing efforts being made to revive the woolly mammoth and how this could help preserve the ecosystem of the Siberian plains.

One day soon, mammoths may not longer be found only in museum exhibits.
One day soon, mammoths may not longer be found only in museum exhibits.

In a recent interview with National Geographic, Mezrich outlined some of the thoughts and steps in such a process. Cloning extinct species has long been a hot topic for conservationists and fictional theme park enthusiasts alike. However, it has also been well established that the longer an animal has been dead, the more difficult cloning it becomes. Mezrich explains that cloning a species from scratch may not be viable in this instance, but we can use discovered pieces of mammoth DNA to write a new mammoth.

In recent years, CRISPR has become the holy grail of genetic modification, allowing scientists to place specific genes into living organisms to produce a new specific trait. As such, this technology makes it theoretically sound that an embryo from an Asian elephant, which is 99% similar to a woolly mammoth, could be modified with DNA specific to the extinct species. Because of the woolly mammoth’s icy habitat, there’s no shortage of remains in a state of relative preservation. As such, many scientists see it as a distinct possibility that an Asian elephant could soon give birth to healthy baby mammoth and, in fact, the two species may even be capable of mating.

The Environmental Impact

Bringing back this species is undoubtedly impressive and even fascinating, but how would this help the environment? No, woolly mammoths aren’t going to produce solar power and they’re not geniuses who can repair the ozone layer, but what they can do is eat a lot of vegetation. Large herbivores like the mammoth apparently encourage the growth of steppe grasses. These grasses actually have the property of being able to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere. Now, this reflection alone is not going to cool the planet in any drastic way, but it can help keep the Siberian plains cool. This is huge because the Siberian permafrost, i.e. the permanent area of ice, has been melting and it’s only a matter of time before this ice releases its gigantic payload of carbon. This carbon could be catastrophic for the environment and could rapidly accelerate the melting of other Northern ice. In effect, the loss of this permafrost could ironically create a huge snowball effect. Research has determined that the reintroduction of woolly mammoths could reduce the temperature of the permafrost by up to 15 degrees Fahrenheit and this could be the difference between catastrophe and stability.

The vulnerable permafrost of the Siberian Plains or Siberian Steppes. Original picture by phluph of Deviantart.
The vulnerable permafrost of the Siberian Plains or Siberian Steppes. Original picture by phluph of Deviantart.

Many scientists are concerned with the ethical dilemma in bringing a long-extinct species back to life, but Siberia isn’t the only place where people are trying. Harvard University apparently has a team working on bringing back the hairy herbivores while a South Korean company that specialises in cloning pet dogs is also turning its attention towards the tusked titans. If these teams prove successful, this could be a source of great hope for stabilising the global climate, and perhaps undoing some of the harm humanity has caused to other species across the ages.

Ronan Daly

Ronan Daly is a staff writer for My Good Planet who specialises in Technology and Science. With a Masters Degree in English, and over a decade's experience as a teacher and writer, Ronan has brought a breezy, learned style to My Good Planet, making occasionally complex material accessible and understandable to all.

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