The woolly mammoth de-extinction project

So, I was on a very interesting Archon panel about this Woolly Mammoth De-Extinction Project. Now, the Archon description compared bringing back mammoths to Jurassic Park, which I do think is sooooo overstated.

The basic truth about large animals is: they are easy to find and kill. If your huge dinosaurs or mammoths are causing serious problems, you can shoot them all. I mean, our ancestors eradicated woolly mammoths using nothing but spears. Killing large animals is just not that hard. It’s not like trying to track down the green tree snakes that destroyed the songbird populations of Guam.

However, it’s also clear if you check out the website that there is no practical goal of re-creating the actual extinct woolly mammoth — the goal is just to create an animal more or less suited for the same ecological niche.

Breakthrough advances in genomic biotechnology are presenting the possibility of bringing back long-extinct species — or at least “proxy” species with traits and ecological functions similar to the extinct originals.

In which case … why bother? You have lost the poetry inherent in bringing back the real thing. I’m not convinced we can predict the ecological consequences of establishing large populations of hairy elephants, especially without their natural predators. The whole thing lacks the allure of true de-extinction, for me.

Instead of fake woolly mammoths, I’d rather focus on de-extinction of much more recently eradicated creatures, like Tasmanian thylacines. Some fragmentary DNA is present in museum specimens, though putting together the whole genome is beyond our abilities at this point.

The Tasmanian ecosystem lacks a natural large predator without the thylacine. Dogs and cats ought to be tightly controlled on the island in any event; they can be so destructive for native faunas on islands. Then if the thylacine could be reintroduced, great!

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3 thoughts on “The woolly mammoth de-extinction project”

  1. The difference between elephants and mammoths is a few percent of DNA base pairs (much like the difference between humans and great apes.) So bringing back the mammoth by starting with elephant DNA is actually close enough for government work. (The Mastodon is a harder problem.) I can’t remember where I saw it, but there was a recent article about a huge private park in Siberia. The lack of really big herbivores turns out to be a big problem for them. Elephants (or bison) are sufficiently hard on forests that they are pretty much necessary for a healthy subarctic savanna. And savanna is much better at preserving permafrost in the face of global warming. So I think even pseudo-mammoths would be pretty awesome.

    That said, I agree with you about megafauna being a threat only at the individual level. In general, they are extremely vulnerable to overhunting and habitat loss. (The possibility of carnivorous dinosaurs moving into cities is plausible only as a plot for monster movies.)

  2. Also, I suspect dogs are less of a problem than cats and rats (and possibly foxes). Also, hunting and habitat loss.
    After all, they were introduced something like 40,000 years ago with the arrival of the Aborigines. It took a long time after that for thylacines to go extinct even on the mainland. Rats are a huge problem in any number of island biomes, as are pigs and cats. I haven’t seen so many articles about dogs being a problem.

  3. I think the order is rats, pigs, goats, cats, dogs. But dogs have been a disaster for kiwis in New Zealand. It’s true a couple dogs surely couldn’t destroy thylacines that way.

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