Opinion — Mammoth resurrection in Michigan

Discussing the environmental ethics of genetic engineering.
Opinion — Mammoth resurrection in Michigan

Nearly 8,000 miles from Marquette, Michigan, Kenyan scientists had a breakthrough just one week ago that will potentially save the highly endangered northern white rhino from going extinct. They have successfully impregnated a surrogate female white rhino with preserved sperm and formed an embryo. If the team is successful with producing white rhino calves, they plan to use genetic engineering to increase genetic diversity within the species. Their long-term goal is to transfer this technique to other types of rhinos, such as the Sumatran rhino. 

The ethical implications of this project are equally relevant in other regions of the world– including the Lower and Upper Peninsula of Michigan. For years, scientists at Harvard have been attempting to resurrect the mastodon, which during the ice age (Pleistocene era) existed in what is now present-day North America. Woolly mammoths and mastodons went extinct between 11 and 13 thousand years ago, but according to a study conducted by Michigan State University, they had a significant presence in the Great Lakes Region, and Michigan’s natural vegetation is extremely complimentary to their diet. 300 mastodon skeletons have been found in Michigan and have been used to study how we could bring them back to life by combining remains with elephant genes.

While the northern white rhino is not yet extinct, we are one genetic breakthrough closer to saving animals that already are. Many believe that it is the human’s ethical responsibility to save these animals from extinction–whether or not they are already extinct– because we are responsible for their population decline. Northern white rhinos are endangered because of illegal poaching in Africa for their horns. Mastodons went extinct due to a variety of factors, including human predation, climate change, and a lack of genetic diversity. 

While today’s humans are not directly responsible for the extinction of the mastodons, their reintroduction would significantly benefit degraded ecosystems in colder climates such as the Arctic, where most of the earth’s CO2 is stored. It is our ethical responsibility to mitigate climate change since humans caused an incredible acceleration of it, so our reintroduction of mastodons and woolly mammoths could be a part of that plan.

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Not only do we have a moral responsibility of resurrecting the animals we choked into nonexistence and preserving the earth’s natural climate, but we also have the responsibility of maintaining the animal’s environment undisturbed. Rectifying our slaughter and environmental exploitation is not possible through torturous laboratory research or enclosures for entertainment. Mammoths coexisted with humans for centuries, and so very well could return to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in our six-month winters, but the question of human interference becomes increasingly concerning. 

If genetic engineering advances and we can resurrect these ancient mammals, the reintroduction of mastodons and woolly mammoths to Michigan would have some potentially counterproductive effects. While we have a cold climate for a lot of the year, Marquette isn’t a tundra (especially not this year, with temperatures in the 40’s in January). The mammoths would have the most positive environmental impact in the Arctic. According to The Smithsonian, “Bringing mammoth-like creatures back to the tundra could, in theory, help recreate the steppe ecosystem more widely. Because grass absorbs less sunlight than trees, this would cause the ground to absorb less heat and in turn keep the carbon pools and their greenhouse gases on ice for longer.”

It would be cool to grow fleshy little tusk bundles in vials of goo and raise them as man’s new best friend– riding a mammoth to class, snuggling up in their fur, and training them to do laps around Presque Isle would certainly increase student mental health– however, with the industrialization and urbanization that has occurred since the last time mammoths and humans coexisted, and we can barely keep the white rhinos alive, perhaps it’s best that if this scientific breakthrough does occur, that we respect our new herbivorous co-inhabitants of the world as if they’d never gone.

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