Sunday, December 30, 2007

No So Long Ago, Not So Far Away

This is an almost-perfectly preserved baby Mammoth
which was recently found near Siberia's Yuribei River by a reindeer herder.

The animal, preserved in the permafrost, is believed to be about 10,000 years old and seems to be in nearly perfect condition, with fur, trunk, skin and internal organs intact. Only the ears have been lost. The frozen baby Mammoth is in Japan now for study and display.

For more thoughts on Mammoths and time, see "The Mammoth in the Hedge" on this blog.


Cowtown Pattie said...

Wonder how long it will be before we see cloned mammoths? Or any now extinct animal that happens to still have recoverable DNA?

PBurns said...

Japanese and Russian scientists have been talking about this for a while (see >> ), but in truth cloning is not quite as easy or cheap as all that, and mostly it is unsuccessful even in the very few species where we seem to know what we are doing. In the case of the Mammoth, we do not even have a single segment of viable DNA (though I think we will eventually find it).

To say cloning techniques are primitive is an understatement -- we are still working with the biological equivalent of stone tools. That said, things are progressing pretty quickly and in 25 years we might look to start cloning some "easy" extinct species like Passenger Pigeons and some of the other extinct bird species (a few parrots I can think of). The tough stuff is going to be Mammoths and Tasmanian Tigers, as they have no close living relatives. Could an elephant works as a surrogate? I doubt it. A more likely avenue of success is to try to trick a piece of Mammoth DNA into working as a sperm in a female elephant, and thereby "back breed" a mammoth with an elephant until they get a 98 percent mammoth. That work might start in 50 years or so, assuming elephants themselves are still around then.

This last point is no small thing -- the forces that drove these animals into extinction in the first place are still around. Passenger pigeons need to fly in HUGE flocks in order to breed, but the habitat they need to feed (unbroken forests filled with mast crops) no longer exist as they once did. The Tasmanian Tiger might make it outside of Australia, but I think it would not last long in a country where poisons are routinely tossed around to control wild dog, dingo and fox. Mammoth could, conceivably, still make it in parts of North America and Russia, but of course they are slow and easy to shoot. In the end, I think the best they could hope to be would be zoo and Disney-land wonders.

On the up side, however, we may get a "perfect storm" of biological engineering where were recreate some of the species we have wiped out in the last few thousand years and do so just before we accidentally create a "killer virus" that wipes humans off the planet. Mother Nature may reboot the machine after all.



PBurns said...

Found it -- the story I was looking for about the downside of cloned species. Pretty well done, and a good story. Check it oit.

It's called "The Christmas Count" and is by David B. Coe, and can be found online here >>

"The Christmas Count" refers to the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.