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Archeology: Raising the Woolly Mammoth

For the record
Science &
Chinan's internet
Nisar A. Memon
Politics & Policy
National Accountability

From Diana J. Choyce
Nov 29 - Dec 05, 1999

In man's quest to find the path to his past, there have many interesting and telling discoveries. Some argue that this search is a waste of money and resources. Others believe that the past will yield crucial keys to our future. The discovery of a frozen woolly mammoth near the Bolchaya Balakhnya River in Siberia, will most likely intensify the arguments. And this find may drag us into a real life sequel to Jurassic Park. French explorer Bernard Buigues would like to not only dig up the mammoth, but attempt to clone it. One never ceases to be amazed by the audacity of man.

In 1997, a nine year member of a local tribe found the mammoth while herding reindeer. His family name is Jarkov and the mammoth has been given the same name. The family took the tusks and the following year attempted to sell them at the Yakoutie market. It was there that they met Buigues who organized an expedition for the next year to seek the mammoth. He succeeded in removing the head and through carbon dating methods, determined it to be a male who had been frozen in the tundra for up to 23,000 years. In October of this year, Buigues succeeded in moving the carcass more than 150 miles to an ice cave in Khatanga. All with the help of a giant Russian helicopter and some very good luck. The mammoth and the ice surrounding it weighed more than 23 tons. Buigues and his team intend to begin defrosting the animal a small space at a time, to look for clues that will tell them more about how the woolly mammoth lived. The scientists will also attempt to collect DNA from the animal. Although it is not a complete carcass, the fact that is was discovered and is being recovered in the cold makes it a very good specimen to work with.

There has always been great interest in these huge beasts from the past. But due to finds of carcasses in the last 100 years interest has grown immensely. The largest mammoth was found in 1806 by Mikhail Ivanovich Adams, a scientist at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Russia. In September 1901, zoologist Otto F. Herz was sent to retrieve a mammoth carcass in Northeast Siberia that was found by a local villager. The restored carcass is on display in Leningrad's Zoological Museum. Three years later mammoth remains were discovered on Liakov Island off the coast of Siberia. The remains were transported to a museum in Paris and put on display. It is the only Siberian mammoth that exists outside Russia. The almost totally intact carcass of a 6-month-old mammoth calf was found in 1977 along the Kolyma River in Siberia's remote Yakutia region. The calf, who died 40,000 years ago, was 46 inches long and just 42 inches tall, with a trunk 23 inches long. Russian scientists gave a sample of it's abdominal tissue to American researchers, who discovered that the mammoth red blood cells were still intact. This sparked hope in the scientific world of a possibility of cloning the once great animal.

Encouraged by the recent success in "Dolly" the cloned Scottish sheep, researchers are determined to carry on with the idea of cloning the mammoth. In the mid-1980's scientists did indeed isolate and study the genetic material of a mammoth. It is their hope that this newest find will yield more useful DNA given its well preserved and frozen posture. "We're pretty sure the mammoth is a male," explains Northern Arizona University paleontologist Larry Agenbroad, one of the scientists who joined expedition leader Bernard Buigues at the dig. "There's a chance we could get a sample of frozen sperm." In theory, the scientists could pair the sperm with the eggs of an Asian elephant producing offspring. Research has shown that there is less than 5 percent difference in the genetic makeup of the two animals. Over time, and through selective breeding the possibility is good that a near pure mammoth might evolve. If no intact sperm is found, they hope to use sample DNA and create a clone using the nuclear-transfer technique that created "Dolly". Scientists from the United States, Netherlands, France and Russia are involved in the project. The Discovery Channel has funded the expedition and is in the process of filming it. They expect to air the footage in March of next year. Partial video footage has already been released and can be seen at discovery.com on the Internet.

No doubt there is much concern over this project both ethically and practically. Most scientists, including the ones involved in the project, believe the chances are very slim for a successful cloning. But, if the process works, we would be bringing back an animal whose natural environment no longer exists. It would be no more than a zoo animal specimen. Others point out that since hunting by man is probably one of the reasons the mammoth is extinct, it would only be fitting that humans bring it back to life. Some wonder why so much effort is being used to give life to the past when man is killing off his future by abusing his environment. It is most logical and prudent that our energies should be put toward saving what we have to provide for our future generations. But man's curiosity is forever fertile, and has been the seed for many good accomplishments. Our curious nature has always bred our amazing creativity. But as should be in all things, there must be a limit and a balance.