Back from the dead – Will dinosaurs be next?
Scientists at Harvard University claim that within 2 years, they will have created a living, breathing woolly mammoth. The latest in gene technology could allow for the ‘de-extinction’ of species that died out years ago. But bringing extinct species back to life is controversial because of the ethical and economic consequences.
Image: Mammoth skelton at National Museum of Natural History by Svante Adermark via Flickr
Wait, but how can we bring mammoths back from the dead?
Well, technically we aren’t resurrecting the dead animals. These scientists hope to use DNA from dead mammoths discovered frozen in ice. The DNA is a genetic blueprint – it determines the way the animal will grow and form. We can insert the DNA of these mammoths into the eggs of a close relative – like the Asian elephant. This would create a mammoth-elephant hybrid, that would be more mammoth than elephant.
Can we really use DNA that’s been frozen in ice for thousands of years?
The last living mammoth walked the earth around 4000 years ago. This means that the DNA of the preserved bodies isn’t in perfect condition anymore. DNA breaks down at a rate of half every 512 years, so the samples available won’t have all the instructions needed to make our 21st century mammoth. The good news is we can use multiple samples to try to fill as many blanks as possible, and the rest can be completed using (yet again) the mammoth’s cousin the Asian elephant.
But where will we keep a living mammoth?
If the scientists at Harvard succeed, where this creature will go is an important question. An American college campus isn’t exactly a mammoth’s natural habitat. Mammoths, like their relatives the elephants, are social animals, so if we really want to learn something about this species, we’d need a few more. The mammoths thrived during the Pleistocene Epoch – a period of time from about 2.5 million years ago to 11,000 years ago – populations surviving later only existed on isolated islands. The closest we have to this environment exists in Siberia where a nature reserve called Pleistocene Park has been set up to mimic the habitat of the woolly mammoth. I don’t know much about the Siberian tourism industry, but a reserve of mammoths would probably amp things up.
The ethics – why should we try to bring back mammoths?
De-extinction is a controversial topic for many reasons. Humans might be responsible for hunting the last of the mammoths to extinction, so do we owe them a second chance? Or should we focus on the many species still living, many declining in numbers? A de-extinction project is expensive – saving animals we’re about to lose rather than ones we lost thousands of years ago may be smarter. Introducing new species into any habitat is risky for many reasons. They might have negative impacts on the species already living there by destroying the environment, outcompeting them for food or introducing diseases. There are also lots of legal questions about whether these lab-built animals would be protected as an endangered species.
But what about other extinct species? WHAT ABOUT DINOSAURS!?
Sadly, dinosaurs roamed the planet so long ago that all the DNA samples have broken down too much. Jurassic Park will have to remain a big-screen adventure. But some scientists are working on other famous species, like dodos, giant cow ancestors and cave lions. Even our beloved Tassie Tiger is on the list. This technology works best using fresh DNA, and resurrecting animals that we’ve lost in the last few decades might just help us deal with the guilt of all those we’ve pushed into extinction.