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How recreating the woolly mammoth could combat climate change

Columbian Mammoth
Columbian Mammoth
Daniel DeCristo via Flickr

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In 2008, a mostly intact skeleton of a Columbian Mammoth that was found at the La Brea Tar Pits. He was nick-named, "Zed."

Zed and his fellow mammoths roamed the earth until their extinction about 10 thousand years ago.

Now, if a pair of Russian scientists gets their way, mammoths will be reborn and have their own domain in Siberia. At a place called Pleistocene Park.

It sounds like that dinosaur movie, and the connection is no accident, but this place is not a tourist attraction.

Ross Anderson is the senior editor at The Atlantic overseeing science, tech, and health. He went to Pleistocene Park to find what they hope to accomplish.

"Pleistocene Park is a rewilding project. It's an attempt to return the landscape to its previous form. Many rewilding projects are only interested in turning a landscape back 3 4 500 years to its pristine state before some level of human interference. In this case, the idea is to turn it back all the way to the ice age when much of Siberia and much of the world indeed was a grassland."

On who's behind the park's creation

The original idea came from Sergei Zimov, who is just a wild kind of Russian mad scientist who's lived in the arctic for many years. As a scientist, he is widely respected in the field as this kind of luminary. He's the one who had the idea for the park and his son Nikita is the one who's now running it.

lOn how a Woolly Mammoth fits into the re-wilding efforts.

Elephants are in every eco-system that they appear in, they are what's called a Keystone species, which is to say they are very important to the environment, their activity has a huge effect on the shape of the landscape and the ecological relationships between the animals. and one of the things is they like to knock down trees.That's one of the reasons why the mammoth step, which is what that ecosystem during the ice age what it was called, was a grassland is because the mammoths were so diligent about knocking upstart trees. 

On why grasslands would help with climate change

In the Arctic oceans, for instance, one of the scary feedback loops with climate change is when the polar ice caps gets smaller, it reveals more dark ocean, which in turn instead of reflecting light away it absorbs sunlight and makes the arctic even warmer. The same thing is true for grasslands and forests. Forests tend to be much darker and absorb more heat whereas grasslands reflect more away. 

On how this mammoth would be created

There’s this common mythology that we all have from Jurassic park. 'What we need to do is find some ancient mammoth cell and take the DNA out of it and pop it into an elephant cell and off we go. The problem is DNA degrades quite quickly. But all a woolly mammoth is is a cold adapted Asian elephant.  If you can take the genome of an Asian elephant and tinker with it and give it things like an under-skin layer of fat, anti-freeze blood and long fur, you can have yourself a mammoth. 

Meanwhile, what about LA's local mammoth, Zed?

We called up Emily Lindsey, assistant curator at the La Brea Tar Pits to tell us how he was doing.

"Zed is mostly finished, he's been fully excavated and almost fully prepared. The exciting project that we're working on now is partnering with local school students on citizen's science project to understand the environment that Zed came from."

Very exciting, but when it comes to recreating Zed's kind at Pleistocene Park, Lindsey's more of a pessimist.

"From a scientific standpoint and curiosity standpoint, it's obviously something out of the movies. But for that expense, the money and the effort, why not put those into preserving the remaining proboscidians today so we don't have to try and de-extinct elephants in 30 years? "

To hear the full conversation click the blue player above.

Answers have been edit for clarity.