Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mammoth cloning, anyone?

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Yahoo! News reports that Japanese researchers expect to clone a mammoth in the next five years. From what I know, the technology isn't far-fetched, and many mammoths are found with intact DNA... in fact, Northern Exposure had a great episode about this very thing.

Of course, the ethical question looms, right?

Well, not for me.  I'm all for seeing a live mammoth!  However, to humor folks who may feel uncomfortable at letting loose yet another charismatic megafauna on the Earth, and for those Goldblum fans out there, let's talk a little about the implications.

First, it is almost certain that mammoths, like many large mammals up to about 13,000 years ago, went extinct due to changing climatic conditions, and there is no real argument in favor of human hunting driving them out.  Since they were almost certainly killed off by non-human reasons, why should we want to bring back these extinct animals?

Enter the Pleistocene Rewilding, an idea bandied about by folks who consider the North American ecosystem to have been unbalanced by the extinction of a number of megafauna about 10,000-13,000 years ago.  As the argument goes, today's flora and fauna that had existed for millennia prior to the mass extinctions of this period now find themselves out of balance, as these large (sometimes huge) creatures moved so much biomass that their loss must have had an impact. 

A prime example is the plight of Joshua Trees in Southern California.  Up until thousands of years ago, Joshua Trees were propagated by a giant ground sloth.  Now, the only remaining Joshua Trees probably reflect the last, tiny range of the sloth during its demise.  This range's climate has changed dramatically during the last few thousand years, as a mountain range has sprung up West of it, blocking the rainfall and turning it into a much more arid habitat.  Without the animal that fed on its seeds then walking over ridges and valleys to other, potentially more hospitable climes (very likely in California), the Joshua Tree is in danger of extinction within its current realm. 

The Pleistocene Rewildling line of thinking argues that species that had been extirpated from particular regions, but who still exist, should be reintroduced to their former ranges.  Species who are extinct, however, but who are known to have had an impact on their habitats, should be replaced with similar species (see this on the American cheetah). 

But, what if species can be returned from extinction?  What impact might a herd of mammoths have on tundra habitat, on the size of wolves or bears - the numbers of bacteria and other scavengers, too - on the movement of nutrients throughout the system? 

That's the big problem as I see it.  We are focusing on the megafauna because, let's face it, they are very cool.  However, we don't know why they disappeared, and we don't know what else went with them, particular microbes, for example, that may have played a vital function in maintaining their "balance".  In fact, we don't even know what a balance means.  In any ecosystem movement, there are winners and losers (in the living sense); outside of our own impacts, who are we to pick these winners and losers?

These questions are vital before we can start to imagine a "healthy" ecosystem beyond managing our own impacts, and since our own impacts have been very large and often systems-wide, we have a lot of work to do in the present realm.  I hope the Pleistocene Rewildling efforts will, for the most part, remain shelved until we can control our own impacts, and get a better picture of the mass extinctions that took place thousands of years ago.

That said, I still want to see a mammoth.  I was an eight-year-old once.


NorCal Cazadora said...

Yeah, I'm a fan of that Goldblum line. I can think of no ecosystem good that has arisen from man's meddling with nature. None.

Will we never learn? (Yes, that's a rhetorical question.)

Josh said...

Cazadora, though I won't go as far as you, I am a much, much bigger fan of Leopold's first rule of intelligent tinkering when it comes to conservation: First, keep all the pieces. In this case, on an ecosystem basis, we don't even know what pieces are missing (microbial life, foodweb interactions, etc.).

That said, I still want to see a mammoth, even if I don't think it should necessarily be reintroduced to the wild.

I also love that Goldblum line.

Josh said...

Woops, that introduction didn't make sense.

I meant, I won't go as far as you about no ecosystem good, but I totally understand the thought, which is why I'm a big fan of Leopold.

Some people have a way with words. Others not have way.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Oh, it made sense! But I'm going to challenge you on this one: What good have we done for the ecosystem? And anything that repairs our damage doesn't count - that's just mitigation.

Josh said...

I must say, Cazadora, you set the bar high. I did some thinking about this, and at first I felt stumped because I figured that by removing humans, it would be difficult to define "good", because everything that happened outside of human interaction could arguably be natural, and therefore either beyond good and evil, or inherently good because we are using nature as the "good" bar.

But then I remembered something we have in common, namely, that hunting connects us to nature, reminds us that we can be natural.

And it hit me. In California, whenever you hunt, you inhabit a niche that California ecosystems love. Whether it be quail or blacktail, you push animals and move biomass and nutrients, and many California ecosystems thrive on this behavior.

So you, Ms. Cazadora, do "good" for the ecosystem.

NorCal Cazadora said...

How dare you point the finger at me!