Return of the Wooly Mammoth?

Wooly mammoths have recently made a few appearances in the global news.  A new analysis of a frozen mammoth carcass discovered in northern Siberia in 2010 indicates that the animal was mauled by large predators, perhaps lions, before it was finished off and then butchered by humans. Another report tells of a Siberian research institute teaming up with “the world’s most controversial geneticist” to clone the woolly mammoth. According to official statements, researchers at North-Eastern Federal University in Russia’s Sakha Republic and Hwang Woo-Suk of South Korea’s Sooam Biotech Research Foundation hope to generate a living mammoth within six years. Hwang is said to have been the first person to first to clone a dog, but he was later convicted of embezzlement and of falsifying some of his stem-cell research—hence his controversial status. The mammoth-cloning project will not be easy; joint Russian-Japanese work on the topic has been on-going for more than a decade, with little progress. Optimism is generated, however, by the existence of frozen carcasses in fairly good condition and by the fact that mammoths were closely related to elephants, particularly Indian ones.

A third recent article on wooly mammoths is not credible. On February 8, 2012, The Sun reported the sighting of a live mammoth in Siberia’s Chukotka region, posting a fuzzy video of the beast. To my eyes, however, the footage seems to show a bear with a large fish in its mouth. Reports of wooly mammoth sightings periodically surface, but the possibility of their survival is nil. The indigenous peoples of the region are quite familiar with the natural history of Siberia, and they have long been aware of mammoth tusks— which they supposedly attributed to a giant mole-like animal.

The significance of the mammoth cloning project goes well beyond scientific curiosity. A group of scientists in Siberia wants to revive the creature to help transform the tundra landscape, turning it from a low-productivity, moss-dominated ecosystem to a much more productive grass-dominated one. That project, focused on the creation of a “Pleistocene Park,” will soon be the topic of a separate GeoCurrents post.