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Ecologist weighs in on logistical consequences of bring woolly mammoths back to life

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
March 19th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Cloning and gene replication could very well bring extinct species - including such prehistoric mainstays as woolly mammoths, back into the 21st Century. A group of geneticists, conservationists, journalists, and others recently met in Washington, D.C. to discuss resurrecting extinct species, including the woolly mammoth. Ecologist and researcher Jacquelyn Gill says this opens a theoretical can of worms. "I'd like to focus on the former: should we clone woolly mammoths?" she writes. It's a literal case of the old adage -- "When you buy an elephant, make sure you have a big back yard."

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Once the mammoths are brought into the modern day, there will need to be an environment necessary to address their concerns. "De-extinction sounds like science fiction, but it's rooted in very real conservation concerns. With the sequencing of the woolly mammoth genome complete and recent advancements in biotechnology, the question of whether to clone extinct species like mastodons, dodos, or the Shasta ground sloth is rapidly becoming more of a question of should, rather than how," Gill says.

"Decades of conservation biology research have tried to determine the careful calculus of how many individuals and how much land is needed for a species to survive without major intervention, accounting for its needs for food, habitat, and other resources."

Extinct on continents for over ten thousand years . All ethical considerations aside, from a conservation biology standpoint, what does it mean to be a mammoth?

Gill wishes to remind the lay person that "not all mammoths were woolly tundra-dwellers; in North America, mammoth remains have been found at elevations ranging from sea level to the mountains of the Colorado Plateau, and from Canada to central Mexico."

There is also the question of diet. "While knowing their habitat alone is useful in terms of identifying potential cloned mammoth reserves, we do in fact know quite a lot about what mammoths ate. Based on plant materials found in fossilized dung, the contents of permafrost-preserved stomachs, and isotopes in teeth enamel, we know that most mammoths were grazers, preferring grasses and herbs to woody trees and shrubs."

Like the modern-day elephant, Gill says that the mammoth had complex social systems. "Woolly mammoth's males had musth glands, which are important in modern elephant reproduction today. Groupings of mammoth bones at sites where multiple individuals died together show extended family structures. Preserved mammoth tracks show extended families walking side-by-side, as well as a decline in juveniles that indicate populations were in decline due to human hunting."

Gill also points out that "mammoths were also matriarchal. Groups of females would typically stay together, and males would have been kicked out of the herd and left to fend for themselves when they reached adolescence."

Gill understands that the resurrection of mammoths is a highly exciting thing, but there are complex questions that need to be answered. "I understand the impetus to resurrect the woolly mammoth--it comes from that same sense of wonder and drive for discovery that led me to be a scientist in the first place. When I watched 10,000 BC, I admit that I wept openly at the sight of CGI mammoths on the big screen. I would be the first person on a plane to Siberia if mammoths showed up in Pleistocene Park. "Science needs icons--rallying points that capture the public interest. Cloning a woolly mammoth could be the equivalent of the moonwalk for biology, resurrecting not just an extinct species, but also rekindling a child-like sense of excitement for the natural world ."

Above all else, there are already many species of animals that are on the verge of becoming extinct, and this should be mankind's priority, she says. "In the case of mammoths, however, there need be no sense of urgency. Perhaps the best course of action is to first demonstrate that we can effectively manage living rhinos and elephants before resurrecting their woolly counterparts in a warming, fragmented, overpopulated world."

In conclusion, she says "bringing back the mammoth means sustained effort, intensive management, and a massive commitment of conservation resources. Our track record on this is not reassuring."

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