In May of 2013, an international team of scientists unearthed the frozen remains of a female mammoth on Maly Lyakhovsky Island, off the coast of the Republic of Sakha in Siberia. It was so fresh that it oozed blood, and one researcher reportedly even took a bite.
Initially only the tusks were visible above the ground. Further excavation revealed not only the rest of her head and trunk, but also three legs and mostly intact internal organs. Informally named “Buttercup”, her teeth reveal that she was around 50 at the time of her death, which was carbon-dated to around 43,000 years ago. This mammoth lived and breathed during a time when Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted and interbred.
Her stomach still contained buttercups and dandelions, and growth rings in her tusks suggest she had weaned 8 calves and had one miscarriage over the course of her long life. The hemoglobin in her blood was adapted to release oxygen in lower temperatures. Tooth marks on her skeleton indicate that she was partially eaten by wolves and other predators, but she froze solid soon after her death and remained that way until her discovery.
Buttercup was about the size of a modern Asian Elephant, her closest living relative.
A number of frozen mammoths have been recovered in recent years as permafrost has thawed, including Yuka, a calf with its fur and mummified brain still intact. “Buttercup” is the oldest and most well-preserved. Analysis of her tissue has yielded the largest fragments of DNA yet recovered from a mammoth, which raises the question: If we can clone a mammoth, should we?
The question has created an interesting ethical dilemma. Rather than finding frozen sperm, it is more likely that fragments of DNA from today’s Asian Elephant will be used to “fill in the gaps” of the fragmented mammoth genome, which was 70% sequenced in 2008. Once fully assembled, the complete genome would be inserted into the egg of a modern elephant, which would then implanted into a modern female elephant. This elephant would then essentially act as an incubator for the genetically engineered mammoth.
“De-extinction” of any species is fraught with a laundry list of practical and ethical stumbling blocks. Further, successfully cloning a mammoth will require experimentation on dozens of endangered Asian Elephants. Should we subject them to a potentially life-threatening 22-month gestation period? (Is 22 months even the normal gestation period for a mammoth?)
If brought to term, an ice age relic–adapted for roaming freely across frigid expanses of steppe with others of its kind–would be forced to live out its days in a concrete box, in today’s modern world with its tall rectangles, heat waves and endless loud noises.
It would be cool to see a real live mammoth, I admit. But is it cool enough to justify the prohibitive cost, the expenditure of increasingly limited resources, and the likely setbacks at the expense of a living species?
What do YOU think? Should we clone a mammoth? Let us know in the comments!