Is there a creature more synonymous with the term Ice Age than the woolly mammoth? That 20th Century Fox chose to centre the film franchise of the same name around this epic species suggests not.
In the Clwydians we have mammoth long bones from both Ffynnon Beuno and Cae Gwyn caves several of which, perhaps predictably, have been chewed by hyaenas. These have provided radiocarbon dates of (give or take a bit) 18,000 years Before Present (or BP), 27,860 BP and 41,800BP. Because the mammoth – aptly described as ‘a fortress against the cold’ – was so superbly adapted to retain warmth, we know that it must have been VERY cold at these times (but not necessarily snowy – more of a freeze-dried grassland).
Frozen bits of mammoth are found regularly in the (for now) frozen tundra of Siberia; tusks, long strands of hair – and occasionally a complete animal. This means that there is considerable potential for DNA extraction, which tells us a great deal about the remarkable adaptations thatenabled them to survive in what was a deeply challenging environment. It also means that, in a scenario reminiscent of Jurassic Park, the notion of ‘resurrecting’ the species has emerged – to much debate.
The prospect of being able to see a living, breathing mammoth is, of course, deeply compelling and therefore – surely – has considerable money-making potential. Indeed the very notion has echoes of Gilbert Pidcock’s eighteenth century menagerie; an entirely commercial enterprise founded on the appeal of ‘mythical’ beings made real within a physical world that hadn’t yet invented TV, David Attenborough or, for that matter, the idea of conservation.
Whilst it may soon be possible, questions surround the ethics of a commercially motivated resurrection. Thoughts inevitably turn to Dumbo, alone in the circus ring, the crowd hooting with derision; a lonely being in a ‘freak’ show…
Might there be ecological benefits? It has been suggested that extensive manuring and clearing of the landscape by migrating herds of mammoths was beneficial to Ice Age ecosystems – and that their great footfalls compacted the permafrost, locking in carbon that would otherwise have escaped into the atmosphere. Experiments are now taking place in Siberia involving driving tanks across the tundra to simulate the passage of these great beasts. In a warming world of nutrient-depleted landscapes, could revived mammoth herds perform ‘environmental services’?
But if, as is the case, we struggle to coexist with the megafauna that have managed to cling on in the face our expansion, what hope for a genetically-engineered reintroduction?
The debate rumbles on, like the subsonic murmur of elephants on the African savannah – many of whom now have shorter tusks; an evolutionary response to poaching.