Scientists at Harvard University have proposed a plan to re-introduce the woolly mammoth to its former natural habitat of the Siberian tundra. While there are currently no individual prehistoric pachyderms that would be used to populate this proposed Pleistocene Park, the researchers are looking at cloning the mammoths needed to pursue the project. That, and the project has a motive that one might not expect: They plan to help curb global warming with the re-introduction of the previously extinct species.
The Long Now Foundation’s "Revive & Restore" program is an effort to genetically reproduce endangered or recently extinct species, such as the black-footed ferret, the heath hen, and the passenger pigeon, and re-introduce them back into the habitats that they disappeared from. Their "Woolly Mammoth Revival" project would make use of recent advances in mammoth genetics to reproduce the 4,500-year gone megafauna creature.
The idea of cloning a mammoth is not new — many well-preserved specimens have been recovered from the Siberian permafrost over the last century, with the hopes of finding viable DNA being a goal for modern researchers. Currently, a research team from Russia’s Siberian Northeastern Federal University are trying to extract enough DNA from a recently found, particularly well-preserved individual mammoth carcass to map its genome, and if successful, the knowledge could be used to clone a new mammoth from scratch. Failing that, geneticist George Church has successfully spliced what is available of mammoth DNA onto an Asian elephant, reproducing the creature’s distinctive features that helped it survive in cooler climates.
The idea of using the mammoths to combat global warming comes from a project currently being conducted in Siberia, where researchers have set up a nature reserve with the goal of recreating an ecosystem from the last ice age. They used currently-existing animals that were present during the Pleistocene era, such as bison, ox and wild horses, to populate the reserve, and found that the animals had a measurable impact on the permafrost. They found that even when the air temperature was -40ºC (-40ºF), permafrost that was insulated by fresh snow was a much warmer -5ºC (23ºF). But in areas where the snow had been trampled down by animal hooves, the permafrost was a much colder -30ºC (-22ºF), as the compacted snow was less insulative.
Long Now Foundation expects the presence of mammoths, whom have a much larger footprint, as it were, to help prevent the permafrost from melting, a state it is currently experiencing, as temperatures rise in the Arctic. The expectation is that the cooling preserved by the mammoths would help slow the outgassing of methane, a potent greenhouse gas trapped in Arctic permafrost that is currently escaping into the atmosphere as the ground thaws.
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