The woolly mammoth may have gone extinct as recently as 4,000 years ago on Wrangel Island near Alaska. However, scientists have been working diligently for years on bringing them back.
In 2019, Japanese researchers made a breakthrough using 28,000-year-old DNA from Yuka, a perfectly preserved baby mammoth found on the Yukaghir coastline of Siberia in 2010.
Even though she remained frozen for millennia, scientists could extract flowing blood from Yuka, a first in history.
Yuka possibly died as a young mammoth, possibly around age six to eleven. Her body still featured thick and long strawberry blond shaggy hair. If scientists brought back a baby like Yuka, a calf might look much like a living Snuffleupagus.
See Yuka from the BBC below:
Reawakening a Woolly Mammoth
Scientists in Japan implanted Yuka’s cell nuclei into mouse egg cells. For 90-year old Japanese biologist Akira Iritani, his dream of resurrecting the woolly mammoth seemed near.
In five cases, the scientists observed a biological reaction indicating cell division could take place.
Kei Miyamoto, a member of the team at Kindai University in western Japan, told AFP:
“This suggests that, despite the years that have passed, cell activity can still happen and parts of it can be recreated,” said Miyamoto.
“Until now many studies have focused on analyzing fossil DNA and not whether they still function,” he added.
However, Miyamoto said cellular damage was “profound.” Thus, a “Jurassic Park-style resurrection” remained implausible.
“We need new technology, we want to try various approaches,” Miyamoto said.
Therefore, scientists needed better cloning technology and samples. Perhaps then, they could insert mammoth DNA into eggs from their closest living relatives, the elephants. Until methods improved, they would continue with mouse embryos.
Reviving and Restoring Woolly Mammoths
Today, a leading organization in the “de-extinction movement,” called Revive & Restore, hopes to bring back the woolly mammoth. If not the actual species, they could bring back a “proxy” species with similar traits and ecological functions.
By editing the woolly mammoth’s genes into the Asian elephant genome, the researchers could create “an elephant cousin” more adapted to live in the far north.
“The ultimate goal of Woolly Mammoth Revival is to bring back this extinct species so that healthy herds may one day re-populate vast tracts of tundra and boreal forest in Eurasia and North America. The intent is not to make perfect copies of extinct Woolly Mammoths but to focus on the mammoth adaptations needed for Asian elephants to thrive in the cold climate of the Arctic. The milestones along the way range from developing elephant tissue cultures to genome editing and most importantly, developing insights that help with Asian elephant conservation,” the website states.
Furthermore, as researchers are learning with today’s elephants, these large grazers are essential for maintaining and balancing their environments.
In northern regions, there used to be a “mammoth steppe.” There in the tundra, grazing herds of antelope, deer, caribou, horses, bison, and woolly mammoths roamed. If these grazers came back, their activities could restore the grasslands, preserve the permafrost, and trap carbon. Consequently, the mammoths could help mitigate human-driven climate change.
The project also hopes to revive extinct species like the passenger pigeon and revitalize the Amerian Chestnut tree.
Related: What became of the Siberian unicorns that once walked the Earth?
We Are As Gods
A new documentary called We Are As Gods focuses on Stewart Brand, 82, the Stanford-educated author and co-founder of Revive & Restore.
When asked why he wants to bring species back from extinction, Brand says it’s a way to undo humans’ environmental damage.
“As it happens, all three of those projects make a lot of ecological sense. There is a gap in the ecosystems those creatures were in that has not been filled by anything else. If you bring them back, you not only increase biodiversity; you increase resilience.”
To Brand, science can partially empower people to reverse the harm they have done to the natural world.
“But maybe the deeper thing is that we get caught up in our kind of tragic sense of human damage, not only to each other but to the natural world. Most of the damage was done unintentionally. The idea of undoing that damage is potentially very freeing,” Brand says.
See more about the documentary, We Are As Gods, below from ReasonTV:
Related: Giant mammoth traps uncovered outside of Mexico City with multiple skeletons inside
The Story of a Woolly Mammoth Named Lyuba
In May 2007, a Nenets reindeer herder named Yuri Khudi discovered Lyuba, a woolly mammoth calf on a sandbar on the Yuribey River in Siberia. A year later, a calf named Khroma was discovered 3,000 miles away.
Nenets believe that mammoths are dangerous omens, creatures that wander the underworld. Worse, some Nenets even believe people who find a mammoth are marked for early death, according to National Geographic.
Nevertheless, Khudi and a friend contacted a local museum, and officials managed to save Khudi’s body from near disaster. Unbeknownst to Khudi, his cousin sold the calf to a local shop where people began taking photos. Meanwhile, stray dogs gnawed part of her tail and right ear. Thankfully, the officials intervened and shipped the mammoth by helicopter to the Shemanovsky Museum in Salekhard, the regional capital.
Later, they named the mammoth Lyuba after Khudi’s wife.
Amazingly, she remained perfectly intact, aside from missing hair and toenails. After thousands of years, she retained her internal organs, stomach still containing milk, bones, milk tusks, and other teeth. Even her eyelashes remained and she looked like she was sleeping.
See more about Lyuba from National Geographic:
Using carbon-14 dating, scientists in the Netherlands found that Lyuba died 40,000 years ago as a one-month-old.
Notably, traces of sediment in her trunk suggested she died after sinking into the mud and suffocating. Then, scientists suspect her body was pickled and preserved by microbes, which may have discouraged scavengers.
However, it’s mysterious how her body remained preserved and pristine after thawing, possibly for nearly a full year. If pickling had discouraged scavengers, why did the stray dogs attack the body?
Researchers used CT scanners to create 3-D models of Lyuba and Khroma.
Since the bodies were too large to scan at a hospital, they required something larger. Thus, they used scanners designed to find flaws in vehicle transmissions at Ford Motor Co.’s Nondestructive Evaluation Laboratory in Livonia, Michigan.
(see video below)
Featured images: Screenshot via YouTube with mammoth calf: Apotea via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported