Researchers examining easily the best preserved mammoth ever found believe it may be possible to clone the individual and bring the extinct species back to life. However, they acknowledge that what would be produced would not be the same creature as what went extinct 4000 years ago. They have also sounded a note of caution on the ethics of such an operation.
The cold temperatures in which mammoths lived and died mean they are often much better preserved than other species of equivalent age - but a specimen found last year in the Sakha Republic, eastern Siberia, is an exceptional case even for mammoths.
“We have dissected the soft tissues of the mammoth - and I must say that we didn't expect such results. The carcass that is more than 43,000 years old has preserved better than a body of a human buried for six months,” said Viktoria Egorova, of the North-Eastern Federal University. “The tissue cut clearly shows blood vessels with strong walls. Inside the vessels there is haemolysed blood, where for the first time we have found erythrocytes.Muscle and adipose tissues are well preserved.” The blood even preserves the record of what was apparently a drawn-out and painful death.
It is thought the mammoth fell into an ice cave and while the top section was eaten by animals, the legs, trunk and some of the internal organs are very well preserved. Scientists from several countries are studying the contents of the stomach to identify the mammoth's last meal and examining solid fragments that may be kidney stones.
The likely collection of intact DNA will provide opportunities to learn more about the ways the mammoth differed from its closest living relative, the Asian elephant. It will also supercharge the discussion about bringing the mammoth back from the dead.
"The data we are about to receive will give us a high chance to clone the mammoth," Radic Khayrullin, vice president of the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists told The Siberian Times.
The idea of resurrecting extinct species through their DNA has attracted much debate, with the Revive and Restore organization founded to implement the idea. However, mammoths would present a particular problem, since such giant creatures would certainly be a challenge to raise. With extensive evidence that the last members of their species outlasted the Ice Age by thousands of years, the knee-jerk objection that no suitable habitat remains is probably not correct. Moreover, the large herbivores are essential to the ecology of the savannahs, so it is possible that herds of mammoths would change the Arctic tundra to an ecosystem more resistant to melting.
On the other hand, the experience of surrogacy to a different species might be considered cruel for the host elephant, and given the high failure rate of cloning this might need to happen many times. Moreover, it is unclear how a natural herd animal would cope with being the first of its kind. More broadly, the revival of even a single extinct species, particularly such a high profile one, would see immediate pressure for the winding back or scrapping of endangered species legislation, possibly leading to the demise of far more species than could be saved by such techniques.
Khayrullin was quick to endorse the importance of a considering the implications of such a big move. “We must have a reason to do this, as it is one thing to clone it for scientific purpose, and another to clone for the sake of curiosity,” he said. Team members also pointed out that any such project was likely to take decades.
While a cloned mammoth would represent one of the greatest tourist attractions on Earth, the DNA would need to be inserted into an elephant egg, as well as using a living species as a surrogate. Khayrullin noted, “It will be a different mammoth to the one living 43,000 years ago, specially taking into account that there will be interbreeding with a female elephant.” Moreover, no elephant could teach a mammoth baby how to live on the icy Siberian steppes.