Turning Back Time: How scientists are bringing back the woolly mammoth

Scientists are close to breakthroughs in cloning ancient animals. Can we bring back what was lost?

Table of Contents

When did the woolly mammoth go extinct?

When you think of fossils, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably a T-Rex or a woolly mammoth. These iconic giants are one of the best glimpses we have of the Pleistocene , a period from about 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago.


The Earth’s climate has always fluctuated. We had massive, dense forests of ferns 300 million years ago. Edge to edge, continents were covered in rainforests so thick and towering that their remnants form the coal and fossil fuels we use now, millions of years later. The Earth’s atmosphere was hot and rich with oxygen. During other times, like about 66 million years ago, the Earth became freezing cold and the atmosphere was thick with noxious gasses like methane.


Our most recent ice age took place during the Pleistocene, only about 20,000 years ago. At that time 25% of the Earth’s land was covered in glaciers, compared to 8% today. The Pleistocene was a time of animal giants. Saber-tooth tigers prowled modern-day Siberia, giant sloths swung through the forests of South America, and the mammoth roamed the steppes of Eurasia. No matter the time period, large animals have always been more prone to extinction than small animals.

Left: A fossil of the Saber-rooth tiger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/James St. John
Right: Artwork depicting the giant sloths of South America. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/DiBgd at English Wikipedia

The first reason is food. In order to get big and stay big, you need to eat big! In times of climate change, resources become scarce. Large animals are more affected by this scarcity than small ones are. Secondly, large animals tend to reproduce slowly, and depend on parental care for longer. This means they are much more likely to decline when they lose a few members.


Another factor seems to have contributed to late Pleistocene extinctions—us. Many large mammal extinctions map onto the same times that humans reached those continents. Scientists are still debating how much of a role our hunting played in these extinctions, and how much was due to climate change. It also varies from species to species. Today, mammal giants exist only in Africa, Asia, and the oceans.


Between humans, climate change, and massive bodies, mammoths stood very little chance. The last population lasted until 4,000 years ago, but most went extinct much earlier.

What is a fossil?

There are many different kinds of fossils , but what links them together is their ability to represent the past. Amber fossils are bits of insects or bones which have been trapped in tree resin, which slowly hardens to form the semi-precious amber. Trapped within the resin, nothing happens to these bits. Impression fossils are imprints of organisms which affect the rock around it. Many plants, and even microbes, have been identified this way! Our oldest fossils are microbe impression fossils, made 3.8 billion years ago.


The fossil record is a crucial puzzle piece in documenting pre-history. Animals that are fossilized help us understand which organisms evolved from which, and how modern organisms are related. By dating the rock or material the fossil is in, we can understand when this organism existed. Fossils even tell us how different animals made their way across continents. Imagine a trail of fossils across Russia, into Alaska. This is how we discovered the way many animals reached North America!


The woolly mammoth fossil record is particularly spectacular. Woolly mammoths existed relatively recently, in terms of the history of the entire Earth. The first woolly mammoth fossil was discovered as early as 1728. Even then, the similarity to African and Asian elephants was noted.

The first depiction of a woolly mammoth, known then as the “Adams mammoth”, created by Johann Blumenbach. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Roman Boltunov

There are some conditions which favor the formation of fossils. Volcanic eruptions are excellent, because they trap animals in rock before the bodies have a chance to decay. Similarly, the icy tundra of Eurasia makes an excellent environment for mammoth fossils. The cold preserves bones, and even tissues! Until the past decade, extracting DNA  from fossils was impossible, because fossils were just so old. Now, we have not only extracted mammoth DNA, but are even ready to clone them.

What is the Pleistocene park?

If we can clone mammoths, what’s stopping us from creating Jurassic Park? This is exactly what scientists are attempting to do in Sakha Republic, Russia. Because the Pleistocene extinction was so recent, and human hunting contributed to it, some scientists feel a responsibility to return the mammoth to life. The initiative centers not only on bringing the mammoth back, but on restoring their entire ecosystem. There are even potential climate change benefits, as the cold grasslands the mammoths subsisted on took in massive amounts of carbon.


The park is currently small, around 20 square kilometers. The reindeer, Yakutian horse, moose, bison, musk ox, sheep, camel, goat, and Kalmykian cow have already been reintroduced.


Restoring Pleistocene organisms is still somewhat feasible within current scientific technology, as the quality of fossils is excellent. Soft tissues, such as fur and organs, have been well-preserved—not just as bones or impressions.


Right now, bringing back the T-Rex is unlikely. However, as science continues to evolve, this might not be so impossible. What would the world look like if everything that once existed, continued to?


If we brought the mammoth back, would you go to Russia to visit it?


DNA: The genetic blueprint of an organism


Fossil: The remains or impression of a prehistoric organism


Pleistocene: A time period between 2.58 million years ago to 11,700 years ago, during which the last ice age (last glacial maxima) occurred

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 8.5


Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 56.7


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