Where's My Elephant?


Almost every time I get into a discussion about woolly mammoths with someone the conversation eventually steers towards the topic of cloning a mammoth. "Wouldn't it be fascinating?", they often say. And with a little extra genetic engineering, many of my friends hope, maybe someone could create a breed of domesticated mini-mammoths that would definitely be in the running for the title of "Cutest Pet Ever" (at least until they left a mess on the carpet).

The possibility of housebroken mammoths, or at least mammoths in public zoos, seemed within reach in the spring of 1984. It was at that time that there appeared a curious article entitled "Retrobreeding the Mammoth" by Diana ben-Aaron in MIT's Technology Review. It announced that a woolly mammoth, or at least something so close to one that the public would exclaim "I can't believe it's not a mammoth!", had been successfully created through some dazzling scientific knowhow.

It had all started when Dr. Sverbighooze Nikhiphorovitch Yasmilov of the University of Irkutsk recovered some eggs from a female mammoth found frozen in Siberia. Even though the nuclei of the eggs were intact the cell membranes around them were degraded, so Yasmilov had to locate some cellular surrogates. He found what he was looking for in other cells extracted from the mammoth's body and thus was able to make the eggs viable again.

The trick was recognizing the potential in the eggs to make baby mammoths by combining them with sperm. When Dr. James Creak of MIT investigated the eggs he was able to determine that there was about a four percent genetic different between the DNA of a living Asian elephant and the extinct mammoth. With a little bit of tinkering, Creak told Yasmilov, it might be possible to create a mammoth-elephant hybrid using the ancient egg and modern sperm.

The experiments required persistence. Over 60 attempts failed before Yasmilov was able to fertilize eight eggs which were then implanted in female Asian elephants. Of those eight only two developed successfully and were carried to term. After a long and difficult experimental phase, the first elephant-mammoth hybrids had been born. They were to be given the scientific name Elephas pseudotherias, though the public could call them "mammontelephas", and Yasmilov was even starting to get ideas for how these new creatures might be put to work;

Great in cold climes, Yasmilov plans to train the mammontelephases to earn their keep when they reach adulthood. They could help pull immobilized convoy trucks out of the snowdrifts on the Trans-Siberian highway. This is now a troublesome task, as the machinery employed to do the job may freeze in the bitter cold. The mammontelephases could also be used for logging, and there may even be a job on the Trans-Siberian pipeline.

News outlets ate the story up. It didn't matter that the new creatures were hybrids; someone had brought an extinct species back from the dead! Hundreds of newspapers ran versions of the story, which was said to be confirmed by international sources, but it was all a hoax. You would think that a story about so fantastic a subject printed on April first would garner at least some skepticism, but apparently what was meant as a harmless creative writing exercise by an MIT student blew up into a media frenzy. As an editorial in the Technology Review later stated, Dr. Yasmilov, Dr. Creak, and the "mammontelephases" were all fabrications. The news sources that carried the story most prominently, like the Chicago Tribune and papers that subscribed to its syndication service, had run with the story before bothering to check it.

And here we are, over twenty five years later, without any mammoths. The idea of cloning a mammoth has definitely captured the imagination of the public but I am extremely doubtful that human eyes will ever again see a true living woolly mammoth. Would such an endeavor even be worthwhile? Perhaps some knowledge could be gained about the recovery of ancient DNA in the process, but generally I think it would be far more profitable to try to save the wild elephants we have left than re-engineer one that has slipped into extinction.

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I am a Glyptodon man myself.

Having spent quite a bit of time up on the tundra and out west in the Great Basin, their absence seems conspicuous and whatever the reason it seems premature. I for one would love to see them, or a hybrid, and I'd include modern asian elephants in the southwest as a servicable surrogate. There's serious speculation that the present ecology holds the capacity for them.

In my ecology class last fall, the discussion always circled back to Pleistocene rewilding and mammoth cloning. We figure it might be a good way to control the encroachment of woody vegetation into the grasslands of the western US.

I can has sabretooth kitteh ?

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 06 Nov 2009 #permalink

In 2008, Hendrik Poinar gave a presentation for the Stanford History of Science Program about creating a living mammoth. He stated that it will happen.
As he pointed out, the big issue, of course, would be the ethical questions surrounding bringing prehistoric creatures to life.

By Adrienne Mayor (not verified) on 06 Nov 2009 #permalink

Count my vote for 'Yes on Rewilding', and I think most of the 'ethical concerns' are rubbish. If it's possible to resurrect a species and make a habitat available, there'd have to be pretty special reasons to make it ethical NOT to do it. Or do you have a problem with conservation? (I'm not attacking Adrienne or anyone, just tossing my two cents in)

For example, there'd be a serious risk (not certainty) that a human individual who was genetically Neanderthal would be unable to cope in the modern world; but however handicapped, they could have a lot of help as both child and adult, and certainly need not be treated as a zoo animal or slave excluded from full humanity (which would obviously be unethical). Can you be sure that no human so different from the 'norm' as a Neanderthal should ever again be born? - What would Helen Keller have thought?

But for most potentially resurrectible animal species, behaviour and culture are much less of an issue; they'll probably do just fine growing up in a captive or semi-wild colony of an extant near relative (or a lab, or a human family). Australia needs thylacines, the habitat's there and the DNA's less than a century old, why should we not have them? Wildlife rescuers know how to raise marsupials from blind pouch-young, and they go back to the wild all the time. We should also have Komodo monitors in the wild, now we know the same species used to live here in the Pleistocene, and it'd be a lot easier to start a population on the mainland before they go extinct in Indonesia, rather than waiting till afterwards. Before having an 'ethical' cow over these animals being dangerous to tourists or sheep, you'd better eliminate cars, guns and bears from North America.

People seem to always say "but we're reintroducing animals into an environment in which they are not nature". Check the paleontology books, geniuses, mammoths were around here until about 10,000 years ago, and if they hadn't died out (due to human hunting, or climate change plus human hunting or what have you), they would have either adapted to the climate or moved slightly north. And habitats haven't changed that much since the Pleistocene, in fact some plant species need proboscideans to survive.

We have the entire mammoth genome sequenced (I think), and so we could in theory bring back the mammoth. But it would be expensive and we don't know all the risks yet.

"you'd better eliminate cars, guns and bears from North America."

And dogs. Dogs hurt more people a year than bears.

"I can has sabretooth kitteh ?"

Bring back teh ground sloths!

By Anonymous (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink

I was a zookeeper at Oregon Zoo when this article came out. A copy was posted in the office for everyone to see. The staff reactions were all very similar--we were thrilled, then chagrined when someone pointed out the April 1 date. What a great concept. I hope to see a variation of the REAL thing in my lifetime.