Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary: How to Clone a Mammoth

Back in 2013, I watched a number of TEDx talks uploaded to YouTube on the topic of de-extinction (you can find the playlist here). These introduced me to the idea of de-extinction and at the time, I was all for the idea. Now however, my view points have changed as it is clear to me that the technology needed to bring a number of the species back just isn’t there yet. More importantly, we need to work harder to protect and understand the species (and habitats) we have before we start to consider bringing back species that have been lost in the recent past. With this in mind, it was a great time to read How to Clone a Mammoth and resume these thoughts, especially in the light of rewilding.

Beth Shapiro is a Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz where her work focusses on the analysis of ancient DNA. As someone that was fascinated by dinosaurs as a kid (and to a lesser extent today), this sounds like quite and amazing job, even if analysis of samples don’t date anywhere near as far back as that. How to Clone a Mammoth is a very balanced read, in regards to the morals, ethics and rationale for de-extinction. At the moment we don’t have the technology (and we likely never will) to clone mammoths as cells in a suitable condition will probably never be found. However, we have many small fragments of mammoth DNA which will allow us to genetically modify Asian elephants, giving them the adaptations mammoths possessed to help deal with the cold. This is as close as we’ll ever get to resurrecting mammoths and for me, as long as we can restore their function to the ecosystem, that’s all that matters.

There are other thoughts we have to consider though. How will these modified organisms be seen in the eyes of the law? Shapiro covers this in detail, although the ins and outs will of course differ depending on the country. De-extinction is a very touchy topic and I feel that if we focus too much on bringing extinct organisms back to life, the general public will stop caring about extinctions in threatened species. Whilst it may be possible to bring some species back using preserved tissues, such as museum specimens, this isn’t going to be the case for every animal. One interesting thing I did learn whilst reading How to Clone a Mammoth is that cloning birds is impossible, which is pretty logical when you think about it. By the time an egg is laid, it’s ready to go. You can’t fertilise an egg that’s already hatched.

We shouldn’t just jump to de-extinct a species if it’s habitat is no longer there, keeping it in a zoo for it’s entire life would not the right thing to do. Whilst many see de-extinction as playing god, but in my mind any level of habitat manipulation we make is just as equal as playing god. This may be as insignificant as felling a tree for our own use. How to Clone a Mammoth is an interesting read that deals with a very complex issue. Despite this, it still hasn’t won me over and I shall remain a sceptic until we are able to untangle the inner workings of the ecosystems currently present, the species within them and all of their interactions. Without knowing how a de-extinct species may react in these environments, they may very easily become re-extinct even if we do throw everything we’ve got at keeping them alive. Even if there is legislation to protect these animals, I can see a huge underground market emerging for the sale of de-extinct wildlife just like there is for endangered wildlife today.

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