National Geographic News
A researcher and a mammoth carcass.

The carcass of a female mammoth found in Russia that researchers say includes 10,000-year-old mammoth blood.

Photograph from Semyon Grigoryev, Northeastern Federal University/AFP/Getty Images

Brian Switek

for National Geographic

Published June 1, 2013

Mammoth blood won't bring us any closer to cloning adorable baby woolly mammoths. That is, if the substance being ballyhooed in news reports really is mammoth blood to begin with.

Despite this week's breathless stories heralding the discovery of mammoth blood and the prospect of recreating the shaggy beasts, relatively little is known about the find.

Like other previously discovered mammoths, the roughly 10,000-year-old specimen recently found among Russia's Novosibirsk Islands remained wonderfully intact in the northern deep freeze. The old female mammoth appears to preserve a great extent of soft tissues over the carcass, according to early reports. (Read more about reviving extinct animals)

But a peculiar liquid found around the carcass is what has been making headlines.

North-Eastern Federal University mammoth expert Semyon Grigoriev, who spearheaded the excavation of the mammoth, has publicly speculated that this fluid is mammoth blood that may contain viable cells. This would seem to bring the possibility of resurrecting a mammoth closer than ever before, but the scientific truth is that we're still a long way from even hoping for such a feat.

 

Mammoth tissue.
Scientists say they found this well-preserved muscle in the mammoth carcass.

Photograph from Semyon Grigoryev, Northeastern Federal University/AFP/Getty Images

 

No one knows what the dark fluid that seeped from beneath the mammoth really is, much less whether the liquid contains cells from the beast. "Whatever we want to call the red material, it would be fantastic if it contained intact cells," says Ross Macphee, an Ice Age mammal expert at the American Museum of Natural History. "I await secure identification on this point."

 

Long Odds of Mammoth Clone

Beth Shapiro, an expert on ancient DNA at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says she is "super excited" about the find of such a large, relatively intact mammoth, adding, "I don't think it's impossible that there is some blood in such a well-preserved find."

Despite that chance, though, Shapiro says, "I strongly, strongly suspect that there will be zero intact cells in the find, regardless of whether blood is preserved."

That dampens dreams of seeing mammoths walk again. "Without an intact, functional cell—one that can be de-differentiated into a stem cell in a petri dish—one cannot clone this animal," she says.

And Shapiro laments that the focus on cloning has distracted the public from the great deal of useful biological information the new mammoth might really provide researchers.

"I'm even a little bit sad, but not surprised, about all the cloning hype that has immediately come out," Shapiro says, "as I think it detracts from the real work that paleontologists, molecular biologists, physiologists, et cetera, could do with such an important find. The media are crying wolf."

When mammoths make news, though, the prospect of cloning them always follows. The reality is messier.

"We are still a great distance away from cloning anything like a mammoth," Macphee says. A critical step is piecing together a complete genetic profile of a mammoth, a problem that the new mammoth fluid won't solve, no matter what it turns out to be.

DNA begins to break down at death, so paleogeneticists would likely draw only scraps of genetic material from the mammoth. Then they would try to place those scraps into a DNA patchwork of the best approximation of what we think a mammoth's genome would be like.

The result would not be a resurrected woolly mammoth genome; it would be modern science's best approximation of mammothness.

That's to say nothing of actually creating a baby mammoth. Researchers could try to manipulate the sex cells of modern Asian elephants—the closest living relatives to mammoths—to get a mother Asian elephant to carry a mammoth baby, or genetic engineers could alter the genome of elephants bit by bit until they reverse-engineered a living hypothesis of a woolly mammoth.

But researchers are not even close to those experimental steps.

Real Species Revival Movement

Our long-running fascination with bringing mammoths, or something extremely mammoth-like, back to life fall under the controversial movement of "de-extinction." Seeking to undo the ecological wounds humans have contributed to in the past, various scientific groups are aiming to recreate species such as the woolly mammoth, passenger pigeon, and mouth-brooding frog.

Cloning is the most oft-discussed de-extinction option, but such efforts face substantial hurdles, from reconstituting an organism's genome to birth defects that cause clones to have relatively short lives after birth. A recently cloned Pyrenean ibex—a horned, hoofed mammal that went extinct in 2000—died only a few minutes after it was born.

Another route is to take the nearest relative of an extinct species and modify that animal into the form of the lost species.

But organisms are not simply organic buckets of genes. An elephant modified to have the genes of a woolly mammoth might not have the exact appearance or behavior of the lost species, given the complicated influences of development and environment on what an organism is.

The third option for species revival isn't viable for woolly mammoths. Called breeding back, the process relies on taking domestic animals and selecting traits that more closely resemble those of their wild ancestors.

This kind of project is being undertaken to recreate huge wild cattle called aurochs, which once roamed Europe. But given the lack of domesticated shaggy elephants, it won't work for mammoths.

All these routes to revival presume that the reinvention of lost species is a worthwhile pursuit. The process could teach us a great deal about the genetics and biology of vanished species, but is trying to find a place for Ice Age mammoths in a warming world actually a good idea?

"Too much of the discussion on de-extinction has been very 'gee-whiz science,' focusing too much on the challenge of cloning individuals and not enough on a species' ecological context," says Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecology postdoctorate at Brown University.

Many questions about mammoths and their ecology, from how many individuals would be needed to sustain a population to the future prospect of how the animals would react to mammoth ecotourism, remain unanswered.

And while some researchers think of recreating extinct species, we continue to lose unique organisms in our own time.

"It's irresponsible to put limited conservation dollars into bringing an Ice Age species into a warming world where dozens of elephants have been slaughtered just this year for their ivory," says Gill.

38 comments
Linnae Nockler
Linnae Nockler

We are slaughtering the last of the great elephants left on earth at a rate of 4 every hour. Why resurrect the mammoth? For more target practice / financial gain? We should concentrate our efforts on protecting the species that still live.


randi Larkson
randi Larkson

some things should not be brought from the grave. i agree with this gill guy. it's a bad idea for the mammoth thing. but if we quit focusing on that, we could fix the problem of our current extinct species.list. 

Mitra R. Ramkissoon
Mitra R. Ramkissoon

Personally, I would love to see these absolutely magnificent creatures roam the earth again. However, if it were to happen, it would only be a matter of time before humans started to poach them for their tusks or just mass-farm them for it.

Sebastian Minnis
Sebastian Minnis

We can wonder, though, if we have any idea what happened to them.

They could of died of population

They could of died because of Noah's flood

And they could of died because savages killed them all. Yet I am unsure....

Sebastian Minnis
Sebastian Minnis

 @C. Chatburn, technically we do have it. You might ask how? Well, obviously cloning technology is just around the corner, but we do not have it yet. As regards the Woolly Mammoth cloning process, I do disagree on the cloning, because it would take way to much time to just re-connect the DNA structure from it's blood, bones, muscle, skin, and so on. But the cross-breeding is a good idea, if we only could find any "sperm" in a male Mammoth. The possibility of any sperm intact in it is 1/10, so that is a very hard thing to say. However, we can put the genome (or the DNA) of the Mammoth that is most intact inside an Asian Elephants egg.


However, I do wish to see these furry-mammoths march the earth again, so we are shooting in the dark, and we'll never know where we will hit. The chances out of this is 60/40

C. Chatburn
C. Chatburn

The idea of bringing back extinct animals is really interesting, but surely if we could ever do it in the future they could never be released into the wild, because it would affect ecosystems too much, so they would have to be in captivity. That's if we ever have that kind of technology of course :)

Kate Kirchner Boetcher
Kate Kirchner Boetcher

Amazing stuff. The thought of resurrecting an extinct species captures our imagination. Jurassic Parks type stuff. Why can't we preserve the current species and also resurrect the extinct? I don't think it needs to be one or the other, why not both? Maybe it will never be done, but it certainly is intriguing. What could we learn from these beasties? Who knows what kind of mysteries might be solved? Often wonderful unexpected ideas come from failed experiments.  Extinction is such a mystery in many cases. Sometimes manmade, but surely not always.  I remain hopeful that we are able to stop further extinction, and possibly resurrect some of the extinct. My cup is half full. Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

Lindsey Chew
Lindsey Chew

Cloning extinct species is an absolutely fascinating concept to me; I am amazed and perplexed at the idea that it is even possible to resurrect animals which otherwise may never have been seen again. While I am completely in favor of saving species from extinction, the idea of 'de-extinction' really worries me. 

According to the article, 'various scientific groups are aiming to recreate species such as the woolly mammoth, passenger pigeon, and mouth-brooding frog'. Aside from the mystical Frankenstein-esque connotation these attempts at recreation bring to mind, what frightens me is that I see cloning as a potential excuse to skip prevention of extinction in the first place. While I understand that cloning is often considered a scientific backup plan just in case a species is obliterated from the environment, it's a cushion that could lead to complacency in terms of protecting species abuse and habitat loss. Also, the article mentions that complications often result in the cloning process, as 'birth defects... cause clones to have relatively short lives after birth. A recently cloned Pyrenean ibex—a horned, hoofed mammal that went extinct in 2000—died only a few minutes after it was born'.

The ethics of the cloning process are quite questionable. So-called 'species revival' may not be much of a revival at all; even if we did clone a woolly mammoth, there is no guarantee that it would display the same characteristic actions or habits, 'given the complicated influences of development and environment' that determine what an organism is. 

In short, I agree with Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecology postdoctorate at Brown University, when she says, 'It's irresponsible to put limited conservation dollars into bringing an Ice Age species into a warming world where dozens of elephants have been slaughtered just this year for their ivory'.

Debra Chittenden
Debra Chittenden

I love science - all of it. Don't close the doors on anything that has the possibility to bring greater insight into our current situations. Cloning has been problematic.  They probably can't bring the mammoth back (and I wouldn't want the poor thing to step into this crazy environment), but don't pooh-pooh what we can learn from it.

Savanna Wesolowski
Savanna Wesolowski

My thought is... why would we try to resurrect such a wonderful animal when we are having a hard time protecting their cousin, the elephant? Seems to be a bit redundant, don't you think?

Clayton Martino
Clayton Martino

Except for the fact that they haven't resurrected ANYTHING. If you would all stop complaining, and stop stating your "ethical" concerns against cloning as fact, then maybe science could achieve something once in a while. Why wouldn't it be interesting to resurrect a mammoth? Are you that lacking in curiosity that you've never once considered what it would've been like, living? This is the coolest thing science has ever done, and everybody here is complaining. Typical.

Radoslav Karanović
Radoslav Karanović

It's human fault for extinction of many species, why not try to correct the mistakes?

Kuya Tebs
Kuya Tebs

it's interesting how we put a lot of efforts and money just to know how to "resurrect" extinct animals. coz with the way things are now: climate change and destroyed animal habitats, even though we're able to resurrect one extinct specie, it will just get back to being extinct again. i move that we protect the living ones, and let the dead bury their dead.

Bernardo A. Barbosa Romo
Bernardo A. Barbosa Romo

Is incredible to know how biology  its advancing with big steps, but I think that instead of spending money, time, effort, dedication in resurrecting extinct species, we should all concentrate in saving the ones we still have. 

In a future, scientists will be trying to resurrect the species  that we have now.


Bernardo A. Barbosa Romo
Bernardo A. Barbosa Romo

Is incredible to know how biology  its advancing with big steps, but I think that instead of spending money, time, effort, dedication in resurrecting extinct species, we should all concentrate in saving the ones we still have. 

In a future, scientists will be trying to resurrect the species  that we have now.


Michael Talatala
Michael Talatala

to all the scientist... please stop resurrecting extinct species, just focus on protecting the present endangered ones... past is past! we should focus more on living things not the dead. clone the ones that still exist today which is endangered species.... to protect them from being extinct!

John Boyd
John Boyd

Well, I don't know about anyone else, But I've have no problem with exploring new horizons and taking on new challenges, and (oh perish, forbid!) displaying a zest for living! Let the morbidly negative contract into a fetal position and contemplate the lint in their navels, if they want to. At least, they won't be in any-one's way.

Marc Archambault
Marc Archambault

I'm still undecided on where I stand on this, but the "they died out for reason" argument is unsound.  We don't know for sure what causes lead to their extinction, but there is strong evidence that prehistoric human hunters probably had more than a little to do with it.  Is we already killed them off, so we should respect that and leave the dead really that great of an argument?

Though I would love to be able to glimpse the lost wonders of the pleistocene megafauna, I think it would be far more valuable to focus our efforts on resurrecting extinct species to the recently extinct ones that are important to extant ecological systems.

jim adams
jim adams

We have so-so preserved remnants of Dodos and passenger pigeons which i think would be great to start with .. i.e., we can put cells into fertilized eggs a lot easier than we can into the uterus of of a mammal. Anyhow, i like the idea of a flightless, large-turkey-sized bird.  I raise chickens and turkeys on pasture and would love to have another alternative


Check: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/04/125-species-revival/zimmer-text   for more info on more species cloning.

Arthur Schultz
Arthur Schultz

If there is money to be made, someone out there is already trying to clone a mammoth. I can see the poor beast touring the world, making zillions of dollars for the owner. Perhaps this is a cynical vision of the world but perhaps not. 

Jacquelyn Gill
Jacquelyn Gill

@Clayton Martino That's not quite fair; I didn't state my ethical concerns as fact, but as my professional opinion. I'm a scientist who studies mammoths; of course I'm interested in what they would have been like alive! My curiosity is what drove me through eleven years of schooling and long nights in the lab.

You can read more about my thoughts here: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/03/18/cloning-woolly-mammoths-its-the-ecology-stupid/ 

I think these questions matter. There's no real sense of urgency when it comes to cloning mammoths. Why not spend a little time to think more deeply about the issue before blundering in? Scientists are often criticized for getting carried away by their excitement and not paying attention to the broader issues at stake.  Giving non-scientist folks-- folk like yourself-- the opportunity to weigh in is precisely what I'm advocating for. 

Jordyn Ray
Jordyn Ray

@Kuya Tebs I completely agree with you. Although cloning is a fascinating concept, it's not fully possible anyway unless you replace the missing pieces of genetic material with genes from modern animals. Perhaps the DNA of modern endangered species could be profiled to prevent further animal extinction? As well as the preservation of natural animal habitats and more efforts into stopping illegal poaching.

Clayton Martino
Clayton Martino

@Michael Talatala To all the luddites.... Please stop stating your ethical opinions as fact. Conservationists ARE trying to save endangered species - that's why we have zoos and breeding programs. The general public shows nothing but apathy towards protecting species, however. So you're saying we shouldn't try something new, because we're in the middle of doing something else? Why not take the risk and see what it brings us? Science has ALWAYS taken risks.

Jacquelyn Gill
Jacquelyn Gill

@John Boyd I don't think that's fair, really. I've devoted my career to protecting biodiversity. It's not morbidly negative to ask for a nuanced discussion and seeing a problem from multiple angles.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Arthur Schultz You're not being cynical Arthur. What I keep envisioning are mammoths cooped up around the world in zoos with zoos competing for mammoths as 'latest attractions'. Do we really want to treat more animals like that? 

Alternatively the world's tundra could be repopulated with mammoths - but then they'll be regarded as a nuisance when herds migrate huge distances to follow food and humans decide they want the land instead, either now or in the future. Worse would be commercial hunting trips which happen today with bears and other animals. Even worse would be the growth of a poaching industry killing whole herds of mammoths for ivory. It's unrealistic to claim that none of the above would happen as these events all occur today! There would be too many people whose only concern would be making money or not losing money to mammoths.

No. Nature decreed that mammoths die out for a reason. Their world changed and they couldn't survive. Let them be. 

Clayton Martino
Clayton Martino

@Jordyn Ray @Kuya Tebs Um, no. There's plenty of Arctic Tundra left. It's one of the least inhabited areas on the planet. And Jordyn, they DO have the DNA capable of bringing this animal back, there are a few specimens to provide diversity.

Brasky Crayton
Brasky Crayton

@Andrew Booth @Arthur Schultz

"Their world changed and they couldn't survive."

You mean humans came along and hunted them to extinction? If that's what you mean, then yes, their word changed.

Jacquelyn Gill
Jacquelyn Gill

@Andrew Booth @Brasky Crayton @Arthur Schultz Actually, there's quite a lot of evidence that human hunting played a very big role in the extinctions. There have been over two dozen ice ages and interglacials in the last 2.5 million years, and most megafaunal extinctions were only in the last deglaciation-- on all continents, whenever humans arrived.

Clayton Martino
Clayton Martino

@Andrew Booth @Brasky Crayton @Arthur Schultz Science has ALWAYS taken risks, and will continue to do so. Why should they stop doing something because someone opposes it, by stating their "ethical" concerns as though it is a universal truth? We have animals in zoos already. Should we be releasing those animals (which are very well taken care of) because it is some "cruel"?

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Brasky Crayton @Andrew Booth @Arthur Schultz Yes Brasky. Most large Ice Age mammals died out when the ice receded at the end of the last cold period of this Ice Age due to climate change. Human hunting didn't help but it wasn't the only reason the megafauna died out.  It was mostly climate change.

However, humans continue to hunt and destroy habitat today - only faster and more efficiently. Approximately 100 species of plants and animals go extinct every day, mostly due to human activity. If we can't stop destroying existing species then what point and what hope would there be for a resurrected one? At the very least whole families of mammoth would be slaughtered for their ivory. Mammoths would also be declared pests and shot when they intruded on farmland and crops or were considered a danger to humans. That's what happens now with elephants. Mammoths couldn't cope with changed climate and human interaction and they wouldn't today.

Humans shold concentrate on preserving what we have now and stop destroying other species and habitats. Until then we shouldn't even consider resurrecting species we've already exterminated.  

Share

Popular Stories

The Future of Food

See more food news, photos, and videos »