If you haven’t already heard, scientists have hatched a plan to resurrect the extinct woolly mammoth within the decade. The US start-up, Colossal, has already raised $15 million USD to re-create a mammoth-like creature using CRISPR gene-editing technology.
The news is equally exciting and frightening, stirring heated debates around the ethics of de-extinction as a novel conservation tool.
The big questions on every conservationist’s mind are: Should we focus on preventing species extinctions – or reversing them? What impacts will this have on present-day ecosystems? And where, exactly, do we draw the line?
Let’s take a deeper look into what this means for the future of planet Earth and how conservation fits into all of this.
De-Extinction: Why Bring Them Back?
Mammoths roamed the Earth more than 10,000 years ago, becoming extinct due to a combination of warming temperatures, disease, and hunting. They lived across the polar regions of North America and Eurasia, inhabiting the great “Mammoth Steppes.” Since their extinction, these extensive Arctic grasslands became dotted with slow-growing mosses, ever-green shrubs, and larch trees. Over time, their habitat was transformed into the Arctic tundra we know today.
Fast-forward to the present where climate change has become the number one threat to the survival of all life on Earth. Our multitude of human activities means that we are degrading the environment at an accelerated rate. Warming temperatures have resulted in deglaciation, wildfires, formation of mires, and permafrost thaw in the Arctic. These play a major role in increasing the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
For more than a decade, woolly mammoths have represented an interesting solution to this global problem.¹ Colossal speculates that the re-introduction of mammoth-like creatures into the Arctic tundra will ultimately assist in drastically reversing the effects of climate change. They believe that re-establishing grasslands will expose the ground to the freezing Arctic air, preventing permafrost thaw.
Following this logic, the transformation from tundra to grasslands has the potential to reverse rising temperatures because they also have a higher capacity to sequestrate carbon from the atmosphere. As an added bonus, these fertile grasslands have the potential to increase biodiversity.
As promising as this sounds, there is insufficient scientific proof to support these theories.
The Power Of Revival
Ancient DNA provides hope for the re-creation of extinct species. However, it has its own set of challenges such as fragmentation and degradation of genetic information. This means that scientists don’t have sufficient biological data to clone extinct species.
Cloning allows for a complete replica of a species to be created. In the case of the woolly mammoth, scientists are relying on revolutionary gene-editing methods to engineer a modern-day look-alike.
The Asian elephant is the closest living relative to the woolly mammoth, sharing 99.6% of its genetic make-up. Scientists at Colossal believe that they would need to make at least 50 changes to the genetic code to transform the Asian elephant into a creature that mimics a woolly mammoth.
If successful, this new elephant-mammoth hybrid will be genetically engineered to survive the extreme Arctic cold. Not only will it resemble a woolly mammoth, but it should theoretically behave and function like one too. Well, that’s if things go according to plan!
Counting The Cost Of Innovative Science
De-extinction is an exorbitantly expensive process. To engineer just one species requires a multi-million dollar funding program. For example, the $15 million USD invested in woolly mammoth revival does not include prior funding underpinning the technological advancements that will be used. Nor does it account for the scientific expertise required to execute these ambitious strategies.
The ultimate question is whether we should be funding traditional approaches to species conservation – or shifting to novel de-extinction methods.¹ How we, as a global population, answer this question will determine the direction conservation will take in years to come.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
When conservation efforts are re-directed toward de-extinction, it places greater value on extinct species than on those that are currently alive but critically endangered. The prospect of revival can undermine conservation strategies if extinction risks are no longer a big deal.
The promise of de-extinction can have knock-on effects for human impacts. It can be used to justify human activities and behavior that contribute to climate change, habitat degradation, and biodiversity loss.
We also need to ask ourselves whether it is practical to bring back one keystone species, whilst at the same time losing a dozen, or more, less significant ones in the process. Are we willing to exchange our current biodiversity for the promise of an ancient predecessor?
Another concern around re-introducing extinct species is that they might not bring about the anticipated environmental change. As these species are essentially engineered hybrids, they may not have the same ecosystem function or the same role in the food chain. This compromises their ability to restore damaged ecosystems – a major motivation underpinning their revival.
We know woolly mammoths played a crucial role in maintaining Arctic grasslands and preventing permafrost thaw. But the destruction of Arctic forests and moss cover may also play a critical role in protecting permafrost.
So how will we effectively manage and monitor these engineered hybrids in a vast, uninhabitable region like the Arctic?
Additional research will have to be done to fully understand their impact on a given ecosystem and appropriate management approaches will need to be developed.
This continues to shift expertise, funding and resources away from species and ecosystems that currently demand our attention.
- Jørgensen, D. (2013). Reintroduction and de-extinction. BioScience, 63(9), 719-720.