actual mammoths

We De-Extincted the Mammoth?

A Mammoth/Pokemon hybrid

It’s rare that we here at We Hunted the Mammoth get to write about actual mammoths, in part because they’ve been extinct for 4000 years.

But they may not be extinct much longer.

A team of wily genetic engineers at Harvard recently announced that it is only a couple of years away from recreating an actual mammoth using mammoth DNA someone dug out of a block of ice or wherever it is one goes to get mammoth DNA these days.

Well, ok, they’re not saying they can create an actual living mammoth with the trunk and the fur and the big tusks and the crushing of puny humans with its mammoth feet and so on. They think they’re a couple of years away from creating an embryo of a sort of half-mammoth/half-elephant mashup.

I’ll let The Guardian explain:

[T]he scientist leading the “de-extinction” effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.

“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Prof George Church. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”

The creature, sometimes referred to as a “mammophant”, would be partly elephant, but with features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood. The mammoth genes for these traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the powerful gene-editing tool, Crispr.

Until now, the team have stopped at the cell stage, but are now moving towards creating embryos – although, they said that it would be many years before any serious attempt at producing a living creature.

The scientists plan to grow the lil mammophant in a cardboard box artificial womb rather than in an actual elephant because they don’t want to risk the life of a member of an endangered species.

All this is possible, the Guardian notes, due to some big advances in gene splicing technology.

De-extincting” the mammoth has become a realistic prospect because of revolutionary gene editing techniques that allow the precise selection and insertion of DNA from specimens frozen over millennia in Siberian ice.

Church helped develop the most widely used technique, known as Crispr/Cas9, that has transformed genetic engineering since it was first demonstrated in 2012. Derived from a defence system bacteria use to fend off viruses, it allows the “cut and paste” manipulation of strands of DNA with a precision not seen before.

So presumably at some point these scientists will be able to create a four-assed mammophant, a la South Park. 

Church claims that his Dr. Moreauesque experiments could be good for elephants and help to fight global warming.

Church, a guest speaker at the meeting, said the mammoth project had two goals: securing an alternative future for the endangered Asian elephant and helping to combat global warming. Woolly mammoths could help prevent tundra permafrost from melting and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

“They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” said Church. “In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.”

Yeah, I’m sure there are no other possible ways to poke holes in snow or knock down trees besides genetically engineering a hybrid species using the DNA of an extinct animal.

And Church is definitely not planning on breeding an army of genetically enhanced super-mammophants that he will use to take over the world.

Did I mention that he thinks that within a decade we’ll be able to reverse aging with genetic engineering?

In other words, if the world survives the Trump administration, we may all, within a few short years, be able to live forever, riding through the tundra on our mammophants, knocking down trees and hunting down any remaining ethicists who say that hey maybe we shouldn’t create new combo animals in the lab just because we can.

I, for one, welcome our new genetically engineered mammophant overlords.

65 replies on “We De-Extincted the Mammoth?”


Not sure if modern Africans are doing it now. Haven’t kept up with that lately.

No, although the occasional eccentric tames one. Why would anyone bother, since horses are available?


When you say that zebras get meaner with age (or have the tendency to)…How does this manifest?

Biting, kicking, bucking, attempts on your life. That kind of thing.

Do horses get nicer with age or are they pretty much in the middle between nice and mean with random outliers way out in either direction?

Horses these days tend towards the nice (or at least docile) end of things, with considerable variation. There are some notably mean domestic horses, but they’re a)not usually as ill-tempered as zebras and b)generally considered to be basically useless as horses.

Now I’m wondering if there was a moment in human history where someone said…”It happened again! Damn zebra was fine the first few years and now it’s a temperamental bitey monster! We never deal with that with horses!”

Not exactly; horses came from farther north. The ancestral species was apparently spread across most of Eurasia. ( I say apparently, because they were all domesticated or killed, and no wild examples have existed for thousands of years.)


any one else thinking how awesome mounted Zulu warriors would have been?

They wouldn’t have been. It’s not like they couldn’t get horses, although apparently a number of the endemic parasites (notably the tsetse fly) are quite fond of horses, and horses quite prone to dying of them.
Thing is, though, that Zulu territory consists of coasts, rolling hills, and high mountains, and that’s shit cavalry territory. You’re better off walking to a fight, which is why that’s what they did.

Re: Zulus and horses

Whilst zulu cavalry would have looked awesome the simple fact is that the Zulus managed perfectly fine without horses. Even after the opportunity to acquire horses presented itself the Zulus didn’t bother (the only sub Saharan African nation to use horses for military purposes were the Bathoso, but they were in a very different strategic position).

Horses had two main purposes, transport and battlefield cavalry. The Zulus had those areas covered anyway. The impi were famous for being able to cover 50 miles per day on foot, for days at a time. That suited their preferred blitzkrieg style. For longer campaigns the Zulus used cattle both for logistical transport and as a mobile food supply.

On the battlefield the Zulus classic ‘buffalo’ formation made cavalry redundant. The ‘horns’ deployment filled that role (attacking the flanks and encirclement) perfectly (better than cavalry in fact because they could take advantage of the terrain)

The Zulus were the classic exemplar of a light infantry force. They were well trained and disciplined elite troops with an excellent command and control system. Cavalry was often used to bolster a large force of less well trained ‘cannon fodder’ and that just wasn’t a requirement.

It’s probably worth noting that the British lost more officers and NCOs to the Zulus at Isandhlawana than they did to Napoleon at Waterloo; and the British had horses (and guns for that matter)

ETA: ninja’d by Dalillama

Not to contradict Dalillama, but as I understand it, the thing about mounted Zulu was this.

What made the Zulu fearsome wasn’t technology or weapons, but organisation. Core to that organisation was a feeling of egalitarianism: unlike the very patriarchal forces of the Sotho-Tswana in which chieftains had the best gear and their followers had whatever they could afford or steal, the Zulu were uniformly equipped. This helped morale enormously, since the poorest soldiers were equipped just as well as the very richest were. Things like horses were seen as status symbols for corrupt chieftains and therefore unworthy of Zulu soldiers.

One can keep horses in South Africa without much tech. Tsetse flies will kill lots of them, especially in Zululand, but not enough to make massed cavalry impossible. The Afrikaners fought from horseback en masse.


What made the Zulu fearsome wasn’t technology or weapons, but organisation.

That is a technology, in every meaningful sense.

Core to that organisation was a feeling of egalitarianism:.

It’s completely possible to have a strong feeling of egalitarianism in a light cavalry culture; Mongols, Cossacks, and Lakota all did so at various times. Zululand isn’t good enough horse territory for everyone to keep a small herd, though.

Things like horses were seen as status symbols for corrupt chieftains and therefore unworthy of Zulu soldiers.

Because, in that territory, only rich people could afford to keep any horses; see previous.

Tsetse flies will kill lots of them, especially in Zululand, but not enough to make massed cavalry impossible.

Impossible and impractical are different things entirely. The potential benefits of horses didn’t outweigh the downsides for the Zulus.

The Afrikaners fought from horseback en masse.

The Afrikaners were heirs to a millenia-long cavalry tradition around which their entire military doctrine was based. They built this tradition in a place where horses do well, and had sunk enough into it to make it worth their while to take it with them despite the challenges. People creating a military doctrine in Zululand, designed for Zululand, chose not to use horses.

@ fabe

Uh oh, looks like I’ll be spending some time at work tomorrow engaged in essential “research”; and hoping no one spots I’ve got headphones in. 🙂


Yeah chances are that after you’re done with the Zulu empire you’ll more onto another topic in the series. Right now they’re covering Catherine The Great.

The mammoth thing sounds pretty cool, although according to CBC Radio’s science show Quirks and Quarks, the amount of variables involved make the project suspect. You’d have to breed a lot of them to make a viable population… and they might not have enough habitat or the right kind of habitat… etc.

Oh, oh, but CRISPR/Cas9 is also very cool! I first heard about it when I was doing a proofreading project for a biochem student, but I didn’t understand much about it since the paper was very technical (I was just there to correct grammar). THEN I heard about it on the radio show Quirks and Quarks (again), and I thought, “Oh, so that’s what she was talking about!”

The metaphor they used was the find/replace function in word programs (something I use in proofreading!): CRISPR does that, sort of, with DNA.

This is the field my sister wants to ultimately work in! (She’s finishing up her senior year of her Lab Animal Management degree and she’s so smart ahh)

From what I understand from her, they’re hoping that as they perfect these kinds of technologies they can contribute to conservation and biodiversity of important living species – if they can create a small breeding population of mammoths, imagine what that technology could do for some of the critically endangered species in the world. Maybe we can bring back more recently extinct animals like the thylacine or the dodo. It might be the key to making sure we don’t lose bees and other key pollinators.

(My understanding is probably incomplete because she is the animal genius, I’m just her annoying brother who asks her lots of questions.)

I have a couple of small mammoth comments (not a sentence I would normally get to write!):

Stephen Baxter did a fun trilogy of novels about mammoths, the last one, ‘Icebones’ being about genetically-modified mammoths being used to colonise Mars. I’d recommend it, and the others as well.

At one of the caves I used to work out, we occasionally found mammoth remains, and it was great fun being able to bring them out for the amusement of the public. If you ever find yourself at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire on a school holiday, pop into the museum and see if they’re doing a ‘handling’ day.

And finally: I’m vaguely aware of a theory I read years ago, that part of the essential ecosystem for mammoths was an area of the Pacific (or Arctic ocean, possibly) which was covered with ice, but the ice was then covered with soil which had blown in from the dried -out central Asian plateau, and was thus essentially a floating continent with plants growing on it. This extended the range for mammoth’s grazing – without it they might be in competition with other herbivores. The lack of such an ecosystem today would severely hamper a viable mammoth population.

Cheers folks!

@ danholme

I have a couple of small mammoth comments

Ooh, more about pygmy mammoths! Oh…

genetically-modified mammoths being used to colonise Mars.

Wow, digging holes in Tundra; flying spaceships; is there nothing they can’t do?

At one of the caves I used to work out, we occasionally found mammoth remains

Yeah, but it’s when you realise the remains are only a few days old and you hear a trumpet behind you that you need to panic.

part of the essential ecosystem for mammoths was an area of the Pacific (or Arctic ocean, possibly)

Trawlers pull up a lot of mammoth remains from Doggerland; so losing that must have also reduced the mammoths’ habitat rather dramatically.


“Yeah, but it’s when you realise the remains are only a few days old and you hear a trumpet behind you that you need to panic”

The mammoths, I wouldn’t be so worried about. If they can fit in a cave, they’re probably teeny. It’s the hyenas who dragged the remains into the caves I’d have an issue with, if I heard them behind me!

That cartoon is feckin’ brilliant.

February 19, 2017 at 3:00 pm
….. Right now they’re covering Catherine The Great.

In what?

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