for National Geographic News
During the last ice age northeastern Siberia remained a grassy refuge for scores of animals, including bison and woolly mammoths. Then, about 10,000 years ago, this vast ecosystem disappeared as the Ice Age ended.
Now, though, the Ice Age landscape is on its way back, with a little help from the Russian scientists who have established "Pleistocene Park."
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The scientists hope to uncover what killed off the woolly mammoth (see photo) and other Ice Age animals. To do so, they're restoring the prehistoric ecosystem once found in what is now the remote Sakha region of eastern Russia.
The land is slowly being turned into willow savanna, as it was 10,000 years ago. Dozens of wild horses are already grazing in the refuge, and there are plans to import bison and musk oxen.
Most spectacularly, the wildlife park may one day become home to a genetic hybrid of the extinct woolly mammoth and the modern-day elephant. But the park probably will not see its most majestic potential inhabitant for several decades, if ever.
Japanese scientists, working with Russians, have for years been searching for mammoth carcasses to use for reviving woolly mammoths, which would then be introduced into Pleistocene Park.
The plan: to extract sperm DNA from frozen mammoth remains and inject it into a female elephant's eggs to produce a hybrid offspring. By repeating the procedure over generations, scientists would eventually create an animal that is mostly mammoth.
One problem, however, has been finding mammoth DNA that is sufficiently well preserved in ice to still be viable. The DNA in mammoth fossils that have been found has been unusable, damaged by time and climate changes.
Also, many mammoth experts scoff at the idea, calling it scientifically impossible and even morally irresponsible.
"DNA preserved in ancient tissues is fragmented into thousands of tiny pieces nowhere near sufficiently preserved to drive the development of a baby mammoth," said Adrian Lister, a paleontologist at University College London in England.
Sergey Zimov, who is not involved in the mammoth-recreation effort, initiated the project to restore the Pleistocene ecosystem in 1989. He hopes to test the theory that hunting, not climate change, wiped out the animals that once thrived in northern Siberia.
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