Ever since some remarkably well-preserved specimens were recently unearthed, there has been a lot of hype and excitement surrounding the possibility of bringing back the extinct woolly mammoth. While some researchers have downplayed these claims, others believe that we are indeed edging closer to achieving this, which would undoubtedly be a landmark scientific achievement. And it now seems there is even more reason to believe that this significant accomplishment is within our grasps, as scientists have managed to successfully sequence the complete genomes of two Siberian woolly mammoths.
“This discovery means that recreating extinct species is a much more real possibility, one we could in theory realize within decades,” says study author Hendrik Poinar. Alongside bringing scientists tantalizingly close to this goal, the research is also offering scientists an insight into the evolutionary history of this iconic species and the factors that contributed to its extinction.
Although this new information is undoubtedly a huge stride in the race towards bringing mammoths back, lead researcher Dr. Love Dalén tells the BBC that although this is a fun and exciting prospect, he would prefer that his research is not used for this.
“It seems to me that trying this out might lead to suffering for female elephants and that would not be ethically justifiable,” he told the BBC. That’s why, unlike others, his group is not attempting to bring back the species, but rather further our knowledge given the fact that our understanding of the drivers behind their extinction remains hazy. Although hunting by humans and climate change have largely received the blame, his team’s new research highlights that a multitude of factors were actually at play throughout their evolutionary timeline.
For the investigation, which has been published in Current Biology, an international team of researchers from Harvard, the Swedish Museum of Natural History and Stockholm University acquired DNA samples from two male specimens that were separated by 40,000 years. The older mammoth lived in northeastern Siberia some 45,000 years ago, whereas the younger male resided in Russia’s Wrangel Island, home to the last surviving mammoth populations, around 4,300 years ago.
Much like completing a picture puzzle, the researchers slowly pieced together the highly fragmented bits of mammoth DNA until they were able to read the near-complete genomes. After analyzing these ancient sequences, the researchers made several interesting finds. They discovered that the younger mammoth displayed very little genetic diversity and a tell-tale sign of inbreeding, which was probably due to the fact that the population of Wrangel Island was very small. Furthermore, they also found that around 300,000 years ago, mammoth populations witnessed a significant decline, or bottleneck, and then managed to recover before experiencing another major setback towards the tail end of the Ice Age.
“The dates on these current samples suggest that when Egyptians were building pyramids, there were still mammoths living on these islands,” Poinar said in a statement. “Having this quality of data can help with our understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of elephants in general and possible efforts at de-extinction.”