December 2002

Jen Crispin

nonfiction

Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant by Richard Stone

Honestly, I don't think that I'd ever given the wooly mammoth all that much thought, before this year. Of course when I was five I was obsessed with dinosaurs, as nearly all children that age are, but I don't remember that obsession ever spilling over to anything with hair - except maybe the saber tooth tiger.

Which is why it's fairly remarkable that I've found myself reading about mammoths twice this year. Somehow mammoths have become the new great sexy beast when I wasn't looking. First the mammoth rated pretty much its own chapter in The Ghost With Trembling Wings by Scott Weidensaul. Then I picked up Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant by Richard Stone, which obviously made the mammoth its main character.

There actually is a reason for all of this sudden interest. Two of them, to be precise. The first was an attempt by Arctic explorer Bernard Buigues to excavate a mammoth entire, while still in its protective block of frozen tundra soil. If successful, such an attempt would allow the removal of the frozen cube to a controlled environment where the mammoth could be defrosted more slowly, with less damage to the tissues that had been preserved for thousands of years.

Of course the advantage of such a well-preserved specimen is not just a lovely museum exhibit, but it also would hold great promise for eventually cloning the mammoth, an endeavor that Japanese scientist Akiri Iritani is poised to pursue. This is the second reason for the new interest in mammoths. Cloning a large extinct animal has so far been limited to fantasy worlds like Jurassic Park. The recent success of cloning sheep inspires hope in these researchers, but the obstacles to cloning a mammoth would be huge even if intact mammoth cells were discovered.

Perhaps more realistic is the alternative route pursued by Japanese researcher Kazufumi Goto, who hopes to find intact mammoth sperm which he could use to impregnate an elephant. The possibility of creating a hybrid has a big advantage in that a sperm cell does not have to be alive in order to impregnate an egg. However there are a lot of obstacles in this path as well.

The most interesting thing about Mammoth is the quandary such research creates. If one day it were possible to create a mammoth clone or hybrid, should we do so? What are the moral and ethical implications in raising an extinct species from the dead? Especially an extinct species whose habitat no longer exists on this Earth. What would be the point? Just to prove that we can? And would we just create a single individual, or try to recreate a sustainable population? Given the difficulties in creating even a single mammoth, the odds against being able to create enough individuals with sufficient genetic diversity to maintain that population seem insurmountable at the present time. Would it be more tragic to see the mammoth flicker and die out for a second time, or would the glory of seeing such a great beast walk the earth again be worth the work?

There are people in Mammoth who have great faith that one day there will exist a park in Siberia where mammoth will roam with buffalo and reindeer once more. It is certainly true that science has brought about many wonders that no one believed would ever come to pass. However I do not believe that I will ever see a live mammoth in my lifetime. Personally, I find the idea of a living museum exhibit to be a bit disturbing. While the quest for the mammoth has led to some interesting science, we live in a world in which the majority of species alive today are uncatalogued and unidentified. If these species were to go extinct tomorrow no one would even notice, yet their absence could be potentially more devastating than more charismatic megafauna like the mammoth.

As for the book itself, Richard Stone writes with a clear and logical style. Although he is the European News Editor of Science magazine, he doesn't even suffer from magazine writer's disease too badly (where each chapter feels more like a feature in a magazine rather than an integrated chapter in a larger book.) I also appreciated that although Stone brings up the moral dilemmas inherent to the research he discusses, he never beats you over the head with the fact that they are dilemmas, nor his opinion of them. Rather, the reader is left free to make up their own mind. Of course, the reader may also choose not to commit to 215 pages on a single extinct mammal, for which I would not blame them. In that case, let me recommend to them The Ghost with Trembling Wings as a well-written treatment of vanished and vanishing species.

Mammoth: The Resurrection of a Stone Age Giant by Richard Stone
Perseus Publishing
ISBN: 0738202819
256 pages