Friday, February 3, 2012

Cloning the Mammoth

The other day I read that some Russian and Japanese scientists have decided to clone a mammoth. Apparently they’ve been thinking about it for some time, but it was only this year that they found a specimen frozen in Siberia, with “good nuclei” in its bone marrow, whatever that means.  Still, they sound like they know what they’re doing.

Like many people, the whole idea of cloning leaves me feeling queasy. For instance, what if a fly buzzes into the Petri dish while the scientists are fiddling about with cells, and a monstrous half- mammoth, half-fly creature with compound eyes and giant tusks emerges from the lab?  Or what if a renegade Nazi scientist living in Argentina gets his hands on the technology and breeds a new strain of Nazi mammoth that hates Jews and wants to conquer the world? Then we’d really be in trouble.

On the other hand, I’m not worried that reintroducing mammoths to the planet 10,000 years after they died out could destabilize the ecosystem, since I do not believe the planet is very stable in the first place. Nature is immensely violent and periodically wipes out entire species only to start all over again. If mammoths prove to be a mistake, they will be exterminated in due course, like the rest of us.

I hope the new mammoths get to hang around for a while. I’ve always had a soft spot for these hairy creatures, especially since I realized that they were contemporaneous with man. It’s not like bringing back a Tyrannosaurus, which existed in a radically different environment from most things that lives today….heck, if I’d been born a few thousand years earlier I could have seen a mammoth.

In fact, I already have: it was sitting in a big glass box in the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg, stuffed and mounted and looking greatly startled.

How the mammoth got there is a remarkable story. I don’t remember all the details, only that he was found encased in a block of ice by a hunter on the Lena River in Siberia. Each summer the hunter would return to see if the ice had melted yet. Eventually the head was fully exposed and he cut off the tusks and took them to a market, where they caused a sensation. When he brought a scientist back to check out the mammoth, some dogs had eaten the head.

The dead mammoth then undertook the epic journey across Russia to St. Petersburg, following a route similar to that Solzhenitsyn would take upon his return to the motherland a century later. Upon arriving, the rotting mass of flesh and hair enjoyed an audience with the royal family. The Tsar was impressed; the Tsarina less so by this stinking pile of ten-thousand-year-old mammoth meat.

Anyway, the mammoth was dissected, and partially digested grass was found in its stomach: clearly it had died and been frozen almost immediately. Then it was put in the box. But as with Lenin in the mausoleum, I’ve never been sure how much of the actual creature remains in its glass house. The mummy is kind of small, and in suspiciously in good condition.

Since that find, frozen mammoths have shown up periodically in Siberia. Meanwhile their bones exist in such great abundance that they are legally collected and used to make luxury spectacle frames.

That’s nice, but nevertheless, a dead mammoth is not as good as a live mammoth. For a start, you can’t organize cage fights between dead mammoths and elephants to find out which creature is tougher. How then will I ever be able to answer the question that keeps me awake at night: if elephant tusks are short but straight, while a mammoth’s are long but curved, then which would be better in a fight?

Furthermore, how am I to learn what mammoth meat tastes like unless a scientist clones one for me? It was rumored in Moscow in the 1930s (or maybe the late 20s) that somewhere in the city an individual had chowed down on the meat of hairy pachyderm. Mind you, that could be risky. I recall that Dolly the Sheep, the first cloned animal on the planet, had lots of health problems and aged at twice the rate of the average ovine. Might not our scientists accidentally create an equally rubbish mammoth? Then they’d have to clone other mammoths and harvest their organs purely to keep the Supreme Mammoth going. Kept alive by the innards of his brothers and sisters, he’d be like one of those old reptilian French politicians who never goes away.

If a mammoth can be restored, then other cool animals could also return, and we would learn that the Black Rhino, recently declared extinct, had merely gone away for a little while. Better yet, the Saber Toothed Tiger might come back. We just need to find one, encased in ice, maybe with a half-digested human in its belly. Then we could clone both of them, and have a rematch, put it on TV and make some money even. The possibilities are endless.