Monday, September 24, 2012

Bringing back the Wooly Mammoth

The last known population of Wooly Mammoths went extinct about 4,000 years ago.  The last population existed on Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia.  Wooly Mammoths were extremely elephant like in both size and shape.  The big differences though between the two lies in their adaptation to climate.  Modern day elephants are adapted to the tropics.  Wooly Mammoths had fur similar to yaks and a thick layer of fat to help hold in heat.  Mammoths also had smaller ears which helped them hold heat in better.  These adaptations are of course why the mammoth lived in the icy tundra and thrived during the ice age.  As the world warmed, bringing the ice age to an end, suitable habitat and areas of food shrunk significantly for the mammoth.  The warming climate along with increased human hunting pressure at the end of the ice age led to the extinction of this huge mammal. 

Even though the mammoth has been extinct for 4,000 years now, scientists are working to clone one back to life again.  The process is simple in theory.  Scientists must first find a living mammoth cell and extract the nucleus.  The nucleus of a modern day elephant embryo must be removed and replaced with the mammoth nucleus.  Then, this embryo must be impregnated into an elephant mother.  If the embryo survives, a baby mammoth will be born to the mother elephant.  All of these processes are well known and have been successfully carried out, but never for wooly mammoths.  In practice however, this process appears nearly impossible.  The first step of finding living mammoth cells is what makes this so difficult.  But once living cells are found, the rest of the process would be relatively simple.

The preference of mammoths for icy cold habitats is what makes this entire process possible in theory.  As mammoths died in the frozen tundra, there is the very likely possibility their bodies would have frozen very quickly, thus preserving living cells in a frozen state.  Indeed, many frozen specimens of ancient mammoths have been found.  Not a single living cell in these frozen specimens has been found though and the probability of a cell surviving thousands of years even in a frozen state isn't very high.  It is still possible though.  And just the fact that it is possible makes at least a few people want to try.  Just think how awesome it would be to go visit a living wooly mammoth at the zoo.  Or see a wooly mammoth performance when the circus comes to town.  OK, that's sort of silly but just think...

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