De-extinction of woolly mammoths to combat climate change?

Composed image of woolly mammoth

Woolly mammoths walked the face of an icy earth during the Pleistocene epoch, more commonly known as the Ice Age. Though it ended around 12,000 years ago, there are remnants of this time period found in Arctic and Antarctic regions; permafrost that has been frozen since the aforementioned last Ice Age. It is here that scientists want to reintroduce the woolly mammoth. They were known to have inhabited sparsely forested steppes, and the tundra in Russia–so called the Mammoth steppe–comes very close to such a landscape. Specifically, the Pleistocene Park in Russia is already attempting to restore the wild ecosystems that were destroyed more than 10,000 years ago. Currently, there are bison, ox, yaks, and other cold-climate animals roaming the park; the founders believe their missing piece is, as you may have guessed, woolly mammoths. Many articles have been written about the topic, but few have extensively discussed why it should not be done.

Exactly how do they plan to “de-extinct” mammoths?

Geneticists want to utilise the successes of the Human Genome Project and use CRISPR technology to fuse mammoth DNA with Asian elephant DNA (its closest living relative) to create a hybrid animal. The aim is not only to bring this extinct animal back, but also open research into ways in which the Asian elephant could be genetically adapted to survive climate change. Eventually, experimentation may lead to growing “complete” mammoths; in other words, developing a full-sized woolly mammoth from an artificially created zygote.

What are the advantages of having woolly mammoths in the steppe?

In order to answer this question, we must first address the issue of permafrost; permafrost is essentially frozen soil which holds about twice as much carbon compared to the pre-industrial atmosphere (4). During the deglaciation period after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), the active-layer of this frozen soil deepened, resulting in thermokarst development. This led to trapped soil carbon being released into the atmosphere—a natural process that occurred over thousands of years. However, due to global warming, there could be further or accelerated defrosting of permafrost which will exponentially increase the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere (a process known as positive feedback), and hence the importance of keeping them underground. This is where mammoths come in: by their elephant-lie nature, they will knock down trees that warm up the permafrost in the summer and trample snow that acts as a warming blanket in the winter. If successful, the hybrids—or actual mammoths—would have advantageous ecological functions that could prevent the permafrost from melting and releasing GHG into the atmosphere.

So why not go ahead and try?

Bringing back what once was lost—a seductive proposition and the premise upon which Jurassic Park fantasies are based. However, there are several reasons why we should be cautious in proceeding with such a project: 1) unintended consequences, 2) long-term uncertainty, and 3) ethical considerations.

Because no extinct creatures have been brought back (with the exception of a virus), the positive impacts remain within the theoretical realm. In realising the de-extinction of the mammoths, we must consider unintended consequences such as negative impacts on existing ecosystems and ethology. Mammoths have been extinct for thousands—around 4,000 to be more precise—of years; their connection with their original ecosystem was severed a very, very long time ago. Bringing them back may be more difficult than it seems, because they may threaten currently existing flora and fauna or may have issues surviving in a new climate. There are arguments that reintroduction and replacement of keystone species with similar species is part of conservation practice (3); however, a mammoth is from a completely different time period and the lack of methodology and past experiments to assure a successful reintroduction are issues that must be addressed. Furthermore, mammals must learn everything from feeding to socialisation from their parents (3). Yet, there would be no parents for these mammoths to learn from—and to rely on Asian elephants who are no more than distant relatives to act as proxy parents could be catastrophic.

Even if we suppose that the aforementioned issues could be resolved—the mammoths are integrated into their environments and the lack of mammoth parents did not interfere with their development—there remain uncertain long-term consequences that must be addressed. The critique of many technological fixes to environmental problems is that they are simply a means of mitigating the damage after it has been done (Figure 1). Similarly, this project fails to acknowledge the anthropogenic activity that necessitates the mammoths’ presence to act as natural geoengineers in the first place. As such, even if mammoths manage to prevent permafrost from melting in the short term, they may not be able to keep up with the (projected) warming of the planet. Eventually, the permafrost may melt anyway. Moreover, once brought back, we have an obligation (or at least a responsibility) towards these creatures; if global warming persists, they may be threatened just as other animals have been driven to endangerment by climate change. We may be reviving woolly mammoths only to watch as they die out once more.


Figure 1: Cycle depicting the progression of ecological degradation and the resulting possible human interventions

This leads to the last point of my critique regarding the resurrection of woolly mammoths, which is ethical considerations. Considering the possibility of the mammoths’ eventual demise (again) begs the question, is it right to bring extinct animals back in the first place? Both geneticists and conservationists alike are proposing to bring back the woolly mammoth as a means to an end; a product which will conserve ecosystems, fight climate change, and serve as a milestone for scientific achievement. Mammoths may be social animals in the same way that their relatives, Asian elephants, are social animals—in need of care, attention, families. Should they be made to exist for the purpose of solving human problems?

Even without considering the investment costs into genetic engineering technology, the costs of caring for a single elephant (proxy for costs of maintenance of a woolly mammoth) is around $70,000 annually and require around 100 acres of land (1). We can expect this number to be multiplied many times for the number of mammoths needed to establish a stable colony large enough to function in an ecosystem. These are exorbitant prices in comparison to other climate change prevention or mitigation methods such as reforestation, which costs around $1,800~$4,700 per 100 acres (2). As such, if the goal is truly to conserve the steppe ecosystem as well as prevent further degradation of the environment, there seem to be much more cost-effective means of doing so. Perhaps this consideration is more political than moral; however, the choices we make today may affect the state of the planet we leave to our children, and so it seems prudent to examine where we put our money as an investment into a just world for the next generation.

In the end, climate change is a human problem—and I believe we should find a human solution. We can take inspiration from the environment, but we should not shift responsibility to nature to fix what we have broken.

References

  1. Casey, D. (n.d.). Performing Animal Welfare Society — PAWS. [online] Pawsweb.org. Available at: https://www.pawsweb.org/care_and_management.html [Accessed 14 May 2019].
  2. Hamilton, R. (n.d.). Reforestation as an Investment: Does It Pay?. [ebook] North Carolina: NORTH CAROLINA COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SERVICE. Available at: http://www.treeimprovement.org/sites/default/files/reforestation_investment_does_it_pay.pdf [Accessed 14 May 2019].
  3. Intelligence Squared US (2019). Don’t Bring Extinct Creatures Back to Life. Available at: https://www.intelligencesquaredus.org/debates/dont-bring-extinct-creatures-back-life [Accessed 14 May 2019].
  4. Tesi, T., Muschitiello, F., Smittenberg, R., Jakobsson, M., Vonk, J., Hill, P., Andersson, A., Kirchner, N., Noormets, R., Dudarev, O., Semiletov, I. and Gustafsson, Ö. (2016). Massive remobilization of permafrost carbon during post-glacial warming. Nature Communications, 7(1).

4 thoughts on “De-extinction of woolly mammoths to combat climate change?

  1. Hey Saran, I really enjoyed reading this! It brought me back to some of the conversations we had in Con&Res Bio. Apart from the ethical problems surrounding the resurrection of the woolly elephant itself, I would want to add one more point to the ‘resources’ point you make in your second to final paragraph. When I read about such ‘vanity projects’, I get really frustrated. Can the talented scientists involved in such projects not focus there talents on saving some integral keystone species that are really in need of genetic rescue like the Tasmanian Devil? (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24024987). There are many ecosystems on earth that will become less productive because of biodiversity loss, which can be way more easily saved if there were more resources allocated to them. Moreover, current resources to conservation in general are quite scarce, I’d dare to say that moving ANY resources to a project that would seriously attempt to resurrect the woolly mammoth would probably lead to net biodiversity loss! This would make more ecosystems less resilient against climate change and other anthropogenic changes, perhaps exacerbating current problems. If we have to learn anything from the IPBES report released last week, is that we cannot miss any resources for conservation goals to prevent total ecosystem collapse.

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  2. Hey Pjotr, I agree, in a world of limited resources and a rapidly degrading environment I think it is necessary to prioritise our efforts. I found your comment about moving resources to a vanity project leading to net biodiversity loss very intriguing. I wonder if anyone has done research on that, or at least about which animals would make the most impact if conserved. However, I wonder if we can also look towards making cost-benefit analyses of which animals to preserve, etc., whereas current conservation efforts are based largely on aesthetics (the fluffiest, cutest animals receive the most attention and therefore funds). The mammoths have gone extinct, and for animals that are long gone I have to say it is not in the earth’s best interest to bring them back. But perhaps we need to find a balance, finding animals to conserve where ecosystems benefit most but also animals that people passionately want to stay around to maintain interest in conservation. Just a thought!

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  3. Hey Saran, thank you for your response! there is actually loads of research on conservation prioritization! (e.g. https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0050223). However, I am not sure about the extent to which the interactions between climate change and conservation/resiliency are integrated in CBA and prioritization, which is given as the main motivation for the Woolly Mammoth de-extinction. It probably varies a lot case-by-case.

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  4. Cool topic. I fully agree with your critique and mostly the ethical considerations. However, in terms of cost-efficiency, there might be huge tourist revenues associated with de-extinction leading to more available resources for conservation. Then again, there is a lot of uncertainty involved with this and the ethical implications of using de-extinction as some sort of PR stunt for conservation are even worse.

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