Are Woolly Mammoths Coming Back?

Colossal Biosciences recently revealed plans to resurrect woolly mammoths and other extinct creatures. If successful, the firm could combat climate change.

Aug 3, 2023By Colt Dodd
are woolly mammoths coming back

The short answer is “maybe.” Colossal Biosciences, a biotech and genetic engineering firm, has secured more than $15 million in funding to bring back extinct creatures, including woolly mammoths, Tasmanian tigers, and dodos. Whether this will (and should) actually happen is an entirely different story.

Colossal Biosciences Hopes to Revive Woolly Mammoths

woolly mammoth against a black sky
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Colossal Biosciences has high hopes for bringing back woolly mammoths. It plans to extract DNA from extinct mammoths and insert embryos into the uteruses of Asian elephants. Over a few generations, scientists will selectively breed these creatures in hopes of producing something that resembles a woolly mammoth.

Contrary to their extinct ancestors, these animals will have:

  • Smaller ears
  • More fur
  • A bigger frame
  • A high-domed head

However, like their ancestors, they will likely feed on a plant-based diet, live in herds, and birth one calf at a time.

Why Bring Back Woolly Mammoths?

frontal view of woolly mammoth
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There’s no doubt that woolly mammoths are cool. But bringing them back is a multi-million-dollar venture, so what’s the goal? Per Colossal Bioscience, ten reasons for bringing back the woolly mammoth include to:

  • Prevent the arctic permafrost from melting
  • Reduce the greenhouse gases trapped in the permafrost
  • Reduce the plants in over-shrubbed forests and restore the area to its natural grasslands
  • Revitalize the Mammoth Steppe (which stretched from Spain eastward into China)
  • Foster an ecosystem that can fight climate change
  • Understand the genes in artic-dwelling creatures
  • Preserve the elephant species
  • Establish a link between genetic science and climate change
  • Help nature combat man’s effect on wildlife
  • Advance multiplex CRISPR editing

There’s Controversy About Reviving Woolly Mammoths

a herd of woolly mammoths in the wild
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The scientific community is divided about whether bringing back woolly mammoths is ethical. Per the New York Times, some of these concerns include:

  • A lack of knowledge. Everything science knows about woolly mammoths is based on research––not firsthand knowledge. For instance, because they’re so closely related, scientists assume that mammoths would be intelligent, non-violent creatures. However, there’s no telling whether this is actually true.
  • Unknown environmental impacts. Colossal Bioscience hopes that by reintroducing woolly mammoths, they’ll combat the negative aspects of climate change. However, it’s unknown whether this would work. It’s also unclear how woolly mammoths would assimilate into a habitat that hasn’t hosted the species in thousands of years.

Scientists also ask: “Who has the authority to release woolly mammoths back into the wild?” That is perhaps one of the biggest concerns that they have. Should Colossal Bioscience, a private company, yield such power in reintroducing a once-extinct species into nature? Or should the government have a say?

These are many things that Colossal Biosciences is open to discussing with those concerned. It doesn’t anticipate that the woolly mammoth restoration will happen for at least a few years, so there’s still time to talk everything out.

What Other Animals Could Be Revived?

stuffed dodo bird in museum
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The woolly mammoth is just one animal that Colossal Biosciences hopes to reintroduce into the wild. In early 2022, the organization also pledged to revive the:

Dodo Bird

Dodos had strong numbers until the 1500s when Portuguese explorers stumbled across them in Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. Dodos had lived peacefully on the island for centuries without natural predators. So, they had no fear of humans, making them easy to prey on.

The Nicobar pigeon is the closest living animal to the dodo. Colossal Biosciences hopes to edit their genes to make them more dodo-like. As with the woolly mammoth, these creatures wouldn’t be exact replicas, but instead, a close relative. However, like dodos, they would probably weigh around 35 pounds and stand three feet.

Tasmanian Tiger

The Tasmanian tiger (also known as the Tasmanian wolf) went extinct in the 1930s, with the last members of its species living out their final days in the Hobart Zoo. Per the Smithsonian Magazine, the animals were killed off by humans who considered them pests. Eventually, the slaying went too far, resulting in the species’ extinction.

As with the woolly mammoth and dodo, Colossal Biosciences hopes to de-extinct the Tasmanian tiger with gene-editing technology, impregnating the fat-tailed dunnart (a close relative) with an edited embryo. Again, while this wouldn’t bring back a true Tasmanian tiger, it would yield a similar result.

Frequently Asked Questions

woolly mammoth skeleton with man
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While the idea of bringing back an extinct species is exciting, readers no doubt have many questions, such as:

Are Woolly Mammoths the Same as Mastodons?

No. They are two different species that share a common ancestor. While they briefly existed in the same period, they lived in different regions and had different physical characteristics. For instance, per the National Park Service, mastodons had pointy teeth for chewing pinecones and branches. Woolly mammoths, on the other hand, had flat teeth for grazing.

What Could Go Wrong if Woolly Mammoths Are Reintroduced in the Wild?

If woolly mammoths come back, there’s no telling what could go wrong (or right). Some scientists are concerned that:

  • Woolly mammoths would compete with other animals for limited resources. This could just create another extinct animal.
  • There’s the possibility of human/mammoth conflict. For instance, who’s to say that a herd of woolly mammoths wouldn’t obliterate a small farm in search of food? Who’s to say that contrary to today’s elephants, woolly mammoths wouldn’t be aggressive?
  • The woolly mammoths’ natural habitat has come a long way since the mammoths’ extinction. The ecological effects could weigh out any benefits.

Some scientists also aren’t sure whether Colossal Biosciences truly intends to uphold its promises. For instance, Jeremy Austin, an evolutionary biologist, calls the venture a “fairy tale” and says that “de-extinction is more about media attention for the scientists and less about doing serious science.”

However, if things work out, wouldn’t it be great to see a woolly mammoth at a zoo?

Colt Dodd
By Colt Dodd

Colt Dodd is a sighthound enthusiast with three years of freelance writing experience. He has an Italian greyhound/Shetland sheepdog mix named Homer. In his spare time, he enjoys going to dog parks and writing fiction.