Make way for the woolly mammoth clone! At least, that’s what some are saying in response to the discovery of the 42,000 year old, mummified baby woolly mammoth currently on display at London’s Natural History Museum.
The ice age relic was discovered in the Yamal Peninsula and has grabbed worldwide media attention, in part because it is a great find, and in part because of the fascination people continue to have with the woolly mammoth. “We are drawn to vanished and mythical creatures,” Richard Stone wrote in his book Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant.
And though Stone noted that the woolly mammoth has been extinct for 3,700 years, every time a thought-to-be-extinct or mythical animal resurfaces, interest in others gains momentum. If you are looking for a good research paper topic in archaeology or in biological engineering, consider looking at what modern scientists are saying about the latest find — and what might result from such a well-preserved specimen being discovered.
Discovery of a woolly mammoth
In 2007, reindeer herder Yuri Khudi and his sons discovered the world’s most complete woolly mammoth near the frozen Yuribei River on the Yumal Peninsula in Russia. The baby mammoth was only a month old when she died 42,000 years ago. Because the body is so intact, researchers have been able to determine that she sank, quickly, in a mud hole, where she was subsequently frozen and went through a natural mummification process.
“It was thrilling to see her in the flesh,” said Adrian Lister, at the London Natural History Museum to Ian Sample of the London Guardian in “Lyuba the mammoth arrives in UK for Natural History Museum exhibit,” posted May 19, 2014. “The preservation is remarkable. There are parts of her anatomy that we’ve never seen before.” The baby mammoth was named after Khudi’s wife, and her name is the Russian word for love.
The mammoth is about the size of a large dog, weighing around 100 pounds and tracking at 51 inches tall. Her stomach contained both her mother’s milk and some chewed grass — surprising to the researchers as her teeth showed no evidence of having been used.
Welcoming a mammoth clone?
“One question everyone asks is can you clone a mammoth?” Lister said in a press conference, quoted by Laura Poppick of LiveScience in the Christian Science Monitor article “Mummified mammoth: Can we clone this critter?” on May 22, 2014. Kazufumi Goto, one of the mammoth hunters Stone followed for his book, has hoped to accomplish that goal since 1998. “He has the right combination of attributes for success: a childlike fascination with mammoths and a proven talent for reproductive biology. Now all he needs is a well-preserved mammoth carcass to reveal itself to him.”
In 2011, Goto expressed hopes that he would be able to clone a mammoth from a well-preserved thigh bone within five years. Lyuba, as the most intact specimen of a woolly mammoth discovered, could help that project if Goto had access to her.
But should he, or anyone else? Poppick wrote about the ethical implications:
- Where would it live? A woolly mammoth would need a large space to roam, and those kinds of spaces are increasingly harder to find.
- What would it eat? If it were released, would it destroy crops? The plants eaten by woolly mammoths 42,000 years ago are not still readily available.
- What would humans do if a mammoth population resurged? Would they become pests?
- If scientists can clone a woolly mammoth, would that take value away from conservation movements trying to preserve currently extinct animals? Critics worry that cloning an extinct animal could lead people to devalue saving currently endangered species.
- Would a woolly mammoth be able to adjust to modern bacteria? The microscopic world has also changed a lot in the last 42,000 years.
Whether or not the woolly mammoth will ever be seen by modern eyes, the fascination with mammoths and other extinct or mythical species remains. The same kind of excitement that came when footage was filmed of a live giant squid in its natural environment, which I covered for iCitations on January 8, 2013, in “Cracking the kraken mystery: Japanese scientists film giant squid in its natural habitat,” surrounds the display of Lyuba in London.
Do you think scientists should try to clone the woolly mammoth? Tell us in the comments.