Where the Heck Would we Put a Woolly Mammoth – or Saber Tooth Tiger for that Matter

By Brent Fewell

The recent discovery in Russia of a 10,000 year old woolly mammoth carcass surprisingly in tact, with muscle tissue and fluid blood samples, has brought both great excitement and dread for what this could mean to science and conservation efforts now and in the future.  The mammoth’s carcass was so well-preserved, there is intriguing talk among scientists of the possibility of using its DNA to clone and resurrect this long-lost animal, prompting a fire-storm of sorts within the scientific community on the issue of de-extinction and bringing extinct species back to life.  Some call it fantasy, yet others call it a looming reality.

There are pros and cons to de-extinction.  Those in support argue that species revival could undo some of harm that natural events or humans have caused over the last several thousand years.  Those opposed, however, argue that focusing on resurrecting the dead takes away from the need to focus energies and monies on conserving the millions of living species that may be facing extinction now or in the near future.

This is shaping up to be a real battle, and one based not only along an ideological divide – raising some of the same, strong views emoted from genetically modified food – but one grounded in the practicalities of conservation.  On the emotionally charged sentiment, after a recent TEDxDeExtinction event in March, Brian Swetik summarized it best.

If we really want mammoths – or something mammoth-ish – to roam Alaska and Siberia again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with creating a hybrid animal to accomplish that goal. But if that is our intention, we should call such a creature what it truly is. Even though most everyone who spoke at TEDxDeExtinction seemed to recognize this necessity of biological engineering, this fact remains hidden under a language that emphasizes true resurrection rather than human-guided reinvention. Perhaps, as suggested by Kent Redford during his talk late in the afternoon, this is because of a cultural obsession with natural “purity” and a distaste for what is “tainted.” Persistent and unfounded fears about genetically-modified organisms – often denigrated as “frankenfoods” when they come in crop form – are a bellwether of public resistance to the kind of genetic engineering that would be required to create the closest thing to a living Carolina parakeet or Xerces blue butterfly.

There are reportedly two dozen species that are ripe for de-extinction, including the saber tooth and Tasmanian tigers, passenger pigeon, dodo gird, and Carolina parakeet, to name a few.  Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, had some interesting thoughts on this and the future of conservation during a recent interview with author Stewart Brand.

While the discussion of de-extinction is fascinating and the development of the underlying science will continue to yield immense benefits to our understanding of conservation biology, I tend to find myself in agreement with those who argue against de-extinction if it tends to diminish our focus and investment on conservation efforts now.  However, I’m not yet convinced that we cannot do both.  The amazing prospect that we could once again lay sight of and experience the Carolina parakeet or dodo bird flying our skies or walking this earth gives me hope that we can manage both sides of extinction coin, and in so doing bring greater awareness of the need to protect and conserve those things around us now.