Imagine you’re hiking in the Arctic and you see a creature in the distance. It’s coming towards you. It looks really big. It gets closer. And bigger. Closer. Bigger. Geez, the thing must be 13 feet tall and weigh six tons! You’re getting the cardio workout of a lifetime just standing still looking up at it. This must be what our cave-dwelling ancestors thought when they encountered a woolly mammoth thousands of years ago. We might be able to experience this same terror within five years, if some scientists have their way. And if we manage to get to the Arctic for a hiking trip.
Colossal Biosciences, a biotechnology company, wants to use gene-editing technology to create an elephant who loves cold weather — pretty much like its ancient ancestor. It will come as no surprise that the company is headquartered in Texas, a big state that likes big stuff.
Related: Mummified baby woolly mammoth found in Canada
Why bring back the woolly mammoth? Some scientists theorize that the giant creatures can help restore the Arctic’s former ecosystem.
“Thousands of years ago…there was mostly grass. Now it’s mostly trees,” said geneticist and Colossal Biosciences co-founder George Church, as reported by Newsweek. “The Arctic is in need of restoration.”
While most parts of the planet are struggling to replant trees, Church said in the Arctic trees exclude larger animals. Trees trap snow, which “keeps the warm summer heat in like a downed blanket,” he said. When the soil thaws, it releases carbon that’s been locked in it for centuries.
“[The Arctic] has 1,400 gigatons of carbon that could be released in the form of methane, which is 80 times worse than carbon dioxide [for global warming],” Church said.
Woolly mammoths could compact the snow, preventing it from insulating the ground underneath it, and decreasing the risk of thawing soil. Grassland would reflect heat and light back up into the atmosphere. These are just a few reasons that more than 40 scientists in three labs are working on the mammoth project.
“Colossal’s long-term goal is to have a herd large enough to aid in the rewilding of the Arctic tundra, but that will take some time,” said tech entrepreneur and Colossal Biosciences cofounder Ben Lamm, as reported by Newsweek. “Realistically, we are a decade away from elephants being able to be fully rewilded back into the Arctic where they can also survive on their own.”
Lead image via Unsplash