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Jurassic Park for Real!

August 28, 2022

Grab your pitchforks!  This time it’s real.

Did you know that there is a company called Colossal that is intending to “de-extinct” woolly mammoths?  And they just entered into a partnership with an Australian professor and his lab to bring back the extinct Tasmanian Tiger?

They’ve already done experiments where they’ve combined mammoth and elephant DNA in a way that allows them to claim that the mammoth genes are “functionally active.”  The plan is to bake up something they can implant in an “artificial womb,” so they can grow a hybrid (half elephant/half mammoth?) embryo.  No indication of what that might look like.

Colossal’s investors are all big into cryptocurrencies and space ventures and so my first thought in response to the question of why they are doing this was because they think it’s fun and they have money to burn.

But a closer look at Colossal’s web site—and believe me, it warrants some close study–informs us that they believe that bringing back mammoths is going to save the planet and reverse climate change.

WTF?

So I did some research.  The theory is that if we can restore the Siberian tundra back to the way it was when mammoths were wandering around, it will prevent the leakage of methane and carbon dioxide from the permafrost and climate change will be reversed!

Bring back the mammoths and you bring back the grassland!

The idea seems to have come from a guy named Sergey Zimov who is already doing something similar (sans mammoths) at a place in Siberia called “Pleistocene Park” (Плейстоценовый парк).

His theory is that overhunting of large mammals led to the degradation of the grasslands and in turn created the frozen tundra which is now at risk of melting and further accelerating climate change. 

He has reintroduced large mammals like yaks and musk oxen on this big property he owns and in the past twenty years they have managed to bring back a grassland ecosystem similar to the one that existed at the time of the mammoths. Apparently, by walking around and pooping they eliminate undesirable vegetation and pave the way for the grasses, but the effectiveness and science are open to debate.

From what I can tell, Colossal think that by cloning mammoths they can make the process even more efficient and recapture more Arctic grassland.

Are they serious?

The website seems to indicate they are, with ten “goals” for de-extincting the mammoths.  They aren’t shy.  One of the goals is “To equip nature with a resilience against humanity’s adverse effects on ecosystems.”

They believe that the absence of these animals is what has degraded their former ecosystems and their goal is to restore ecosystems by reintroducing species that used to exist and they cite the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone as an example.

Potentially it’s true of the Tasmanian Tiger which was hunted to extinction and whose absence as a predator allows populations of other animals to get out of whack which has a knock on effect on the ecosystem. 

But the reason the Tasmanian Tigers were killed was because they were killing domestic sheep. The presence of sheep and agriculture and other human activity had already radically altered the ecosystem. And that ecosystem isn’t going to be altered by the de-extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger.  If history is any indication, it will just make people want to kill the Tasmanian Tigers all over again.

But back to the mammoths.  I have the same question about them.  Sergey Zimov is theoretically already demonstrating that you can restore the Arctic tundra with contemporary animals.  So why go to the trouble to clone mammoths?

It just seems like the hard way to go about it. Think about it.  If the goal is to reverse climate change, what kinds of fossil fuel are going to be burned to transport the mammoths from the lab where they are cloned to Siberia?  And you think Vlad is going to let mammoths cloned by an American company just wander around Mother Russia?  He’s not the most trusting guy and at a minimum will definitely want a piece of any action.  Or are they going to give Vlad the cloning technology?  I don’t see that happening, do you?

You don’t have to spend a lot of time on the Colossal web site to figure out that the not so hidden agenda is to use the kick ass genetics technology they will develop to address a variety of human medical problems like Alzheimers, cancer and diabetes.  And that’s where the big bucks are.

I don’t mind science and business innovators coming up with new biomedical solutions.  But I have a problem with them using a subterfuge like de-extinction to fund their venture.

What better way to generate interest in a project than to sell it as a painless way to solve the climate crisis.  You don’t have to give up your cars or air travel.  We’ll release the mammoths and it will be business as usual.  Who wouldn’t support that?

In any case, I’m not sure they’ve thought through all the potential unintended consequences.  In New Zealand, where cows and sheep outnumber people, one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases is animal flatulence. There was even talk of a levy on farmers which was referred to as the “fart tax.”

I’m no scientist and I don’t know how many mammoths it’s going to take to reverse climate change, but has anyone thought through how much greenhouse gas they will be creating in the process?

On a more serious note, I was in Tasmania a few years ago and saw a museum piece on the Tasmanian Tiger.  As early as 1863, people were warning that human activity was pushing it to extinction:

And other voices raised the same question that could be raised about the Colossal project:

It may be too late, but maybe this is the best advice:

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