The woolly mammoth is only one species of the larger mammoth and elephant ancestral grouping, the proboscideans. Modern elephants, the mammoths and the mastodon share a common ancester, but originate from separate evolutionary lines; in other words, while they were physically similar, the woolly mammoth was not a direct ancestor of the elephant.

The ancestral mammoth species was Mammuthus meridionalis, which evolved into three species which made their way to North America (roughly 1.5 million years ago): the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), the pygmy mammoth (M. exilis) and the woolly mammoth (M. primigenius)*. The ancestral mammoth first appeared at the beginning of the pleistocene, while the woolly mammoth, which was the last mammoth species to evolve appeared just prior to the holocene. The best information available suggests that the woolly mammoth was present in North America up until 11 000 years ago.

While the woolly mammoth was smaller than the Columbian, it was still an impressive beast. It measured 3.5 meters at the shoulder, and weighed between 6 and 8 tons. It likely consumed up to 300 kilograms of vegetation daily, and thus spent large amounts of its time foraging. Physically, the woolly mammoth resembled modern elephants, but had smaller ears, larger tusks and was covered in long reddish-brown hair.

There is some dispute in the biological and anthropological literature concerning the extinction of the woolly mammoth. Some scientists believe that the rapid decline and subsequent disappearance of the woolly mammoth after the arrival of humans in North America is evidence that they were likely hunted to extinction. However, during this same time period the continent also underwent major climatic change (retreat of the glaciers) and thus the vegetation available for forage was likely changed and perhaps reduced. Thus, the woolly mammoth may simply have starved to death.

Finally, there is some international controversy surrounding the mammoth at present. With the successful cloning of Dolly, researchers have begun to consider the production of a living woolly mammoth. A number of specimens were preserved not as fossils, but frozen in the Canadian arctic and Siberia. The tissues of these specimens are almost assuredly sufficiently intact to permit cloning, but the ethics of such an act are only now being argued.


Update: 20-08-2002: Japanese scientists are planning to use the legs of a mammoth found in the permafrost in Siberia to clone an individual. The plan is to use an elephant as surrogate mother, and the resulting individual would be genetically a mammoth, but have the mitochondrial DNA of its mother. One has to wonder if this is a good idea ...
Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,1-3-387635,00.html
* Note that the Mammoth node provides some taxonomic information, particularly in the definition provided by Webster's 1913, but this is out of date.

This information was complied from a number of online and written sources, but the most comprehensive is likely the Discovery channel web site, at http://www.discovery.com/exp/mammoth/mammoth.html

With the advances in cloning that have happened recently, it's inevitable that people would start attempting to bring back species that have been extinct. There are many likely motives for this, ranging from the sadness of losing a member of our biodiversity, to the green glow of lucre. If one were to attempt to bring back an extinct animal for profit, simply reviving the Caribbean monk seal would probably not be crowd-drawing enough to base an amusement park on. No, you'd probably want something with more drama. Something more foreign would definitely draw more than the academics and activists. And let's face it, professors and protestors don't have much spare cash for small plastic souvenir statues. You'd want something like a dinosaur, or, maybe, a woolly mammoth. Guess what?

The Times of London have reported that Japanese scientists are going to use DNA from the testicles and leg of a frozen woolly mammoth to create viable woolly mammoth sperm. They then plan to use this to impregnate the mammoth's closest genetic descendent, an Indian elephant. Then they plan to repeat the process with the anachronistic offspring from this unlikely union and create a purer mammoth. Eventually, they hope to have an "88 percent mammoth in 50 years."

Aside from the great publicity and public interest in a woolly mammoth, there are other reasons for choosing this species. Namely, there are reportedly ten million mammoths frozen in Siberia. This is apparently an estimation from the roughly one hundred existing mammoths which have been found with the limited exploration that has occurred. Frozen specimens are much easier to mine DNA from, as you have much more of the original host than calcified bone tissue.

The mammoth hybrid will inhabit a new park, which will also import living animals which can be traced back to the ice ages, such as horses, bison, and musk oxen. So, it must be a theme park? Of course, the alarmists are already crying "Jurassic Park" in terror. Yes, I'm sure hordes of super-intelligent mammoths will be mowing us down in no time.

There is legitimate cause for concern in precedent, however. This will be a landmark achievement, and surely there will be similar projects afterwards, by the same or other teams, with more potentially dangerous offspring. When do we go too far? The moralities of cloning are debatable, but not in this node. For now, enjoy Woolly Mammoth Park! (or whatever they name it)

http://www.cnn.com/2002/TECH/08/21/clone.mammoth/index.html - One of the first reports about the cloning
http://www.pinnipeds.fsnet.co.uk/species/caribmnk.htm - Information about the majestic Carribean monk seal

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