Woolly mammoths could be coming to a park near you sometime before 2027, thanks to funding from PayPal founder and tech luminary Peter Thiel.
That’s according to a new book by Ben Mezrich called “Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures.”
The project to revive woolly mammoths has been going on for several years, but it gained new attention in February when a team of Harvard scientists said they intend to resurrect the furry creature within a decade.
The woolly mammoth went extinct 10,000 years ago, and in reality, the scientists wouldn’t actually be bringing it back. Instead, they aim to create a hybrid animal using genetic material from an elephant and a woolly mammoth. To do that, they’d carefully combine a selection of DNA from both creatures using gene-editing technology Crispr, put the fetus into an artificial embryo, and accio! Woolly elephant. Elephammoth. Mammophant.
Regardless of its name, the resulting animal would essentially be an elephant with mammoth features like long, shaggy hair, subcutaneous fat, and blood uniquely adapted for frigid temperatures.
Mammoths aren’t the only animals that people want to resurrect — now-extinct or threatened species of reindeer, bison, wolves, tigers, and horses are also on the list of potential candidates. The movement to “resurrect” these creatures isn’t limited to scientists, either; it’s become a pet project of people across the globe, including a Russian father and son whose Kickstarter-funded “Pleistocene Park” aims to recreate a “vanished ice-age ecosystem.”
Ethical debates about de-extinction projects are intense, with some scientists saying the animals could could help preserve endangered or threatened species and others saying it would destroy existing ecosystems.
Proponents say the project and others could help restore ecosystems and help fight climate change by bringing back plants like grasses and trees that suck up pollution. Other supporters say iconic resurrected animals could serve as a sort of “flagship species” which is used to encourage the public to protect the regions they represent.
But some scientists disagree. Tori Herridge, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum of London, is one of the scientists who examined the 28,000-year-old remains of a woolly mammoth uncovered in Siberia in 2014. She wrote in The Guardian that “cloning [a woolly mammoth] would be ethically flawed,” since we still don’t fully understand the role that many of these now-extinct animals once played in the wider ecosystem.
The problem she raises, which has been pointed out by several other researchers as well, is that we don’t know how these creatures’ modern incarnations would affect other animals, plants, and the planet as a whole.
“It is unclear still whether the mammoth steppe disappeared as a result of the loss of the mammoth or whether the mammoth disappeared because its habitat was lost, along with its ice age world,” Herridge wrote. “It’s a big gamble to put your climate-change mitigation hopes on a herd of woolly mammoths.”