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Bring Back the Woolly Mammoth?

by Robert Silverberg

About fifteen years ago one of these columns was devoted to a project for bringing back from extinction the zebra-like South African animal known as the quagga, which ceased to exist in the late nineteenth century. It had stripes only on its head, neck, shoulders, and part of its trunk; the rest of its body was a light chestnut brown in color, or sometimes yellowish-red, and its legs were white. Its mane was dark brown with pale stripes, and a broad dark line ran down the middle of its back. It was as though nature had intended the quagga to be a zebra, but had given up the job halfway through. When the nomad huntsmen known as the Hottentots were the only inhabitants of the South African plains, the quagga was a common animal there, grazing in herds of twenty to forty. The Hottentot name for it was quahkah, from the sound of its barking neigh. The first Boers—Dutch settlers—arriving at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 adopted the name, spelling it quagga. Soon large-scale quagga hunting began. The Boers had no use for quagga meat themselves, but they killed them as food for the Hottentots, whom they had enslaved, and used their hides for making leather shoes and sacks for the storage of grain, dried fruits, and dried meat. The quaggas vanished very quickly before this onslaught: by 1870 the last wild herd had been entirely exterminated. From time to time in the first half of the twentieth century isolated quagga sightings were reported in remote parts of South Africa, but none was ever verified, and even these dubious reports ceased after 1940. A few quaggas did survive in Europe for a couple of decades beyond the 1870 extinction date, having been brought there as curiosities by collectors of unusual animals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But offspring among the captive quaggas were rare, and the last male quagga in Europe died in 1864. The Berlin Zoo’s one female died in 1875, and another, the last of her species, expired at the Amsterdam Zoo in 1883.

Whether the quagga is a sorely missed species is not a question I would presume to answer. But a South African taxidermist named Reinhold Rau evidently felt a serious need to bring it back from extinction and devoted years of his life to the goal of actual and literal resurrection of a vanished species. Rau first encountered a quagga—a stuffed one—in 1959, when he took a job as a taxidermist at Cape Town’s natural history museum. Something about that quagga moved him deeply. He saw it as a victim of man’s ignorance and greed, and, as he said many years later, he felt that it was his duty—his destiny, even—to “reverse this disaster.” He wondered whether quagga genes lurked in modern-day zebras and could perhaps be brought together by a program that would in time arrive at what would be, in effect, an authentic quagga.

That would be unlikely to achieve if quaggas and zebras had indeed been separate species, so far apart genetically that interbreeding in the days before the quagga’s extinction would have been impossible. But Rau didn’t think that was so. He knew from their terminology for the animals that the early Boer settlers had regarded quaggas and zebras as nothing more than different varieties of the same creature, and was convinced, in a purely intuitive way, that the quagga must have differed from the zebra only in the pattern of its striping and in some superficial characteristics of body shape, not in any profound genetic way.

He began the experiment in 1986 with a group of zebras provided by the Namibian parks service, supplemented with a second batch captured a year later in a different area of southern Africa, using DNA samples taken from the stuffed specimen in Cape Town, and by the time of his death in 2006 he had a herd of more than one hundred animals. Biologically they all must be considered zebras, of course. But some are quite quagga-like in appearance. That does not, sad to say, make them true quaggas: they are just zebras with quaggoid striping patterns. The prize of the herd, whom Rau called “Henry,” was zebra-striped from head to rib-cage, but then the stripes began to fade out, and the rear half of his body was yellowish-brown, with only a few faint stripes visible on his hindquarters. Other scientists have continued Rau’s work, and by now South Africa has a goodly number of animals that look very much like real quaggas. Whether they are real quaggas, or just zebras that have been bred to have quagga-like stripe patterns, is a philosophical subject I don’t propose to deal with here. But they are, at any rate, as close to quaggas as any beast anyone has seen since the last unquestionably authentic one expired close to a century and a half ago.

The idea of bringing extinct creatures back from the dead still has its fascination. I dealt with the notion myself about forty years ago in a story called “Our Lady of the Sauropods,” in which I prudently put a bunch of recreated dinosaurs on a space satellite at a safe distance from Earth. (Michael Crichton, a few years later, chose the more exciting option of putting his “Jurassic Park” critters closer to home, where of course they got loose and caused all sorts of trouble.) And now a plan is afoot to restore to existence that conspicuous feature of the ice-age world, the woolly mammoths.

Mammoths, we know, were hairy elephant-like creatures with flamboyantly curved tusks and bulgingly domed heads that occupied much of the northern half of the globe during the last ice age, dying out about ten thousand years ago as the world grew warmer and as our paleolithic forebears grew more adept at hunting them. They are not considered ancestral to the modern elephant, but the two species had a common ancestor six million years ago, and are closely related genetically. Whether it was global warming or over-efficient hunting that did them in is something we don’t know, but, despite vain hopes that living mammoths might turn up in some remote corner of the Arctic, there are none to be found anywhere today, and the surprise discovery of a little colony of them somewhere is something that scientists no longer expect.

Ben Lamm and George Church are unhappy about that. Like Reinhold Lau a generation ago, they refuse to accept the idea that extinction is final, and they have formed a company called Colossal that intends to put thousands of these huge beasts back on the Siberian tundra, using modern genetic-manipulation techniques.

Church is a biologist at Harvard Medical School, who has specialized in developing ways of reading and editing DNA. Lamm is the founder of the Texas-based artificial-intelligence company Hypergiant. Their plan is to edit elephant DNA, inserting genes for the distinctive mammoth traits (the woolly hide, the huge curved tusks, the domed forehead) until they have bred a new population of what are, in all significant respects, actual woolly mammoths. Originally they planned to implant genetically altered elephant embryos in surrogate female elephants, but that turned out to be easier said than done. Acquiring a supply of female elephants would be no simple matter, and as for harvesting eggs from elephants, well, that was something that no one has ever managed to do and would probably be quite tricky to achieve. Plan B seemed more feasible: build an artificial mammoth uterus and create mammoth embryos using stem tissue from elephants.

Can it be done? Maybe.

Should it be done? Not everyone thinks so.

Investors have put up millions of dollars to fund the project. These days it is not hard to raise money for the wildest of schemes, and the idea of recreating the woolly mammoth is appealing to many imaginative people. Building an artificial uterus that will house an embryo eventually reaching a size of two hundred pounds during the elephantine gestation period of two years is the first step. When and if the first little mammoths, or pseudo-mammoths, or whatever they are, come forth, they will have to be nurtured into adulthood. Do the experimenters plan to induce modern elephants to serve as wet nurses for these strange little babies? That may be a problem. The assumption is that the little creatures can be reared by their creators until they are of a size to be released into their planned destination in Siberia (where, one supposes, the local authorities will welcome them gladly as tourist attractions, though I have seen nothing so far that indicates that arrangements for the delivery of a herd of mammoths have been made).

Already the pros and cons have begun to be heard.

Messrs. Church and Lamm believe that turning a bunch of mammoths loose in Siberia will have ecological benefits for our beleaguered planet. The Siberian tundra once was all grassland, which absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But global warming has caused most of the grass to disappear and be replaced by less beneficial moss. The mammoths, we are told, will root up the moss and their copious droppings will provide fertilizer for the recovering grassland. Russian ecologists are already attempting something like this with bison in a Siberian preserve they call Pleistocene Park; mammoths, it is argued, being much larger, would do this more effectively.

From the other side come the arguments of the animal advocates, who are never slow to make their voices heard. It is well known, they say, that mother elephants form strong bonds with their offspring, who stay beside Mama for several years. Will the little mammoths, raised motherless in laboratories, not feel the emotional absence of the mother-mammoth, and suffer from the deprivation? And then, releasing them into a world they have never known—what will it be like for them, living in a landscape unknown to them, and, also, what unwelcome changes will they bring to the existing ecological web of their new home, already populated by animals that may not care to have these huge strangers thrust among them? And so forth. It is not difficult to come up with objections to many kinds of radical scientific development.

There are always those, after all, who see no need for any kind of scientific advance, so long as such problems as cancer and famine and poverty remain among us. Look for new continents, Señor Columbus? Why? Send spaceships to the Moon? Why? Investigate the structure of the atom? Why bother?

The best answer to Why?, I think, is Why not? Challenges are meant to be met, if one is to continue on one’s upward path. Discoveries lead to new knowledge, and knowledge has its great benefits, often unexpected ones. If the choice lies between curing cancer and resurrecting the woolly mammoth, my vote will always be for the former. But that is a false choice. The effort going into creating designer mammoths will not divert one cent from the battle against cancer. The quagga is already back, more or less. Onward with the mammoth project, say I. And then on to the saber-tooth tiger, the giant ground sloth, the brontosaurus, even the velociraptor. Why not? Why not? Human ingenuity, ever at work!


Copyright © 2022 Robert Silverberg

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