Out of Bounds

Restoring the Mammoth Steppe

Science fiction literature and films have long toyed with the fantasy of resurrecting extinct beasts. The novel “Jurassic Park” was published in 1990 and the film version premiered in 1993, launching the modern “reality-based” lost-species-resurrection genre. I suggest reality-based only in that for the first time that I can recall, there was plausibility to the fictional technique used to reanimate Tyrannosaurus rex.

By Rob Breeding

I’m a fanboy when it comes to Pleistocene wildlife. 

I’ve a framed poster in my office depicting a Noah’s Ark-like nirvana, including a couple of extinct, long-horned bison, a pair of blissfully cohabitating giant ground sloths, a small herd of mastodons, their long trunks sipping at the waterhole, and off to the edge, hungry dire wolves preparing to upend this Ice Age Eden.

Unlike dinosaurs, the megafauna of the Pleistocene has only recently departed from the landscapes of the northern hemisphere. The big megafauna die off occurred at the end of the Last Glacial Period. By 11,000 years ago, most of the big critters were gone, though woolly mammoths hung on for another 6,000 years in isolation on Wrangell Island in the Arctic Ocean.

That’s barely a blink in geologic time.

There remain a few holdouts and these relics are some of my favorite animals. The pronghorn antelope is the hippest of all, the last of a family of animals that otherwise died off. Pronghorn are living fossils; their legendary speed and endurance are traits evolved to evade long-lost predators such as the American cheetah, which blinked out with the rest of the Pleistocene megafauna.

Science fiction literature and films have long toyed with the fantasy of resurrecting extinct beasts. The novel “Jurassic Park” was published in 1990 and the film version premiered in 1993, launching the modern “reality-based” lost-species-resurrection genre. I suggest reality-based only in that for the first time that I can recall, there was plausibility to the fictional technique used to reanimate Tyrannosaurus rex.

Plausible doesn’t necessarily mean possible, however. Recall that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were recreated using DNA found in the digestive tracts of mosquitos encased in amber. They found a lot of these full-bellied, sap-preserved mosquitos apparently, allowing the amusement park to recreate an entire community of predator and prey species.

By the way, we all know where the real bucks would be if some billionaire managed to grow herds of dinosaurs to populate a remote tropical island: selling canned hunts to Safari Club trophy chasers pining for a Tyrannosaurus rex mount to fill the empty wall space in their game room.

The problem is that this DNA trick hasn’t yet worked, at least not for DNA 65 million years old. That’s how far back you need to go to get dinosaurs. 

In the real world, scientists who work on these things have recovered DNA from Pleistocene wildlife, some of it from nearly intact woolly mammoths recently released from their deep freeze in the thawing permafrost of Siberia. 

Not only are they finding viable DNA; they also have a nearly analogous living species to use as surrogate host: the Asiatic elephant. The biotech firm Colossal recently announced it had raised $15 million to fund its woolly mammoth resurrection project. Using gene-editing technology, the firm intends to identify unique DNA sequences from the extinct beasts, and graft them into the DNA of an Asiatic elephant egg, creating something like a woolly elephant.

Colossal execs say these new hybrid elephant/mammoths could be unleashed on the Siberian permafrost, knocking down trees and compacting frozen ground in order to reverse arctic thawing. You see, they’re going to save the world, or at least the mammoth steppe.

If that sounds like a harebrained scheme to you, well good. That means you haven’t yet lost your bonkers. 

I am intrigued by the idea of a Pleistocene Park, however, and Wrangell Island might just be the place. The speed at which science is moving indicates this isn’t just plausible, but likely.

But saving the tundra from global warming? That idea suggests the white-lab-coat crowd has finally learned what Hollywood always knew: good marketing doesn’t require plausibility.

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