An article in Physorg.com this week reported that a team of scientists from Japan and Russia believe that they may be able to produce a living woolly mammoth within the next five years by a cloning process. Key to their research will be finding an intact nucleus from a woolly mammoth, a species that has been extinct for 10,000 years.
They might be in luck. In August, a well-preserved thigh bone was found frozen in permafrost in Siberia. The researchers are pinning their hopes on finding cells with intact nuclei in the bone marrow.
Their plan is to transplant a cell nucleus from that mammoth's thigh bone into the egg of an elephant from which the nucleus has been removed. The egg would then be implanted into the uterus of an elephant. If the technique works, a baby mammoth would result. Except for the source of the donor nucleus, this cloning process would be identical to that used to create cloned sheep and other animals.
But is this a priority? Resurrecting a species that has been extinct for thousands of years? Vic and I can't help but wonder why scientists are attempting to resurrect a woolly mammoth, given that so many species living on earth today are facing extinction.
For example, the latest casualty is the Western black rhino. Scientists from the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared it extinct in the wild last month. No Western black rhino has been seen in the wild in Africa since 2006.
The Southern white rhino of Africa nearly met the same fate. That population was down to fewer than 100 individuals at the end of the 19th century but has since rebounded to 20,000. The decline was due to unregulated hunting during the colonial period and habitat loss due to farming. Conservation techniques of habitat preservation and protection from hunting and poaching have allowed the species to bounce back.
One of the keys to preservation of endangered and threatened species sometimes is as simple as habitat preservation. Other measures can include captive breeding programs.
Here in Southern California, we have a number of plant and animal species on the verge of extinction. Southern California is one of 24 biodiversity hotspots in the world, meaning that we have an unusually high concentration of endemic plants and animals. These are species that are found nowhere else in the world.
Peninsular bighorn sheep are probably the largest of the endangered species in our area. These magnificent animals roam the mountains from the Palm Springs area south to the Mexican border and into Baja. Vic and I have seen these rare animals in the wild at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
The population of Peninsular bighorn sheep reached a low point in 1996, with less than 300 individuals remaining. But since declaration of the species as endangered, which ended off-road vehicle use in their habitat and spurred captive breeding programs, the population is rebounding. Aerial surveys conducted in 2010 showed that the population of bighorns in Southern California was 950, with an additional 2,000 to 2,500 sheep in Mexico. Problems still facing the sheep are disease, failure of lambs to survive to adulthood, habitat loss and predation.
There was also good news this summer about the Peninsular bighorn sheep in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Volunteers counted 329 sheep, up from 255 last year. Volunteers count the sheep over a three-day period in July, monitoring the springs where the sheep congregate. Temperatures can soar into the 120-degree range on a July afternoon in the desert, so summer sheep-counting isn't for the faint of heart.
Captive breeding programs such as the one at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly the Wild Animal Park) are helping increase the population of these bighorns. The Bighorn Institute in Palm Desert also runs a captive breeding program and has released 125 bighorn sheep into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains.
But global climate change may affect the future of our desert bighorns. According to Defenders of Wildlife, "[L]osses have occurred primarily at lower elevations, where increases in temperature and decreases in precipitation have reduced the amount of vegetation available for foraging and the freshwater springs they depend on for water. More populations of desert bighorn sheep may be at risk as the southwestern climate continues to become hotter and dryer."
A number of endangered and threatened bird species live even closer to us. Bolsa Chica, the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge and Upper Newport Bay are home to endangered California least terns and light-footed clapper rails, as well as threatened Western snowy plovers. The Bolsa Chica Conservancy runs a volunteer program called Eyes On Nest Sites, where volunteers monitor the colony of least terns and the nesting snowy plovers. David Pryor at California State Parks runs a similar program for the nesting colony at Huntington State Beach. Volunteers report predation or other issues so that steps can be taken to protect the birds.
Every spring, volunteers from the Amigos de Bolsa Chica clear the tern nesting islands of weeds and debris to prepare them for summer nesting season. A crew from the Orange County Conservation Corps did similar work at Nest Site One in the ecological reserve this fall. That area is the long sand strip in the newly restored wetland behind the fence at the end of the boardwalk. Terns need relatively bare sand on which to nest, and rampant plant growth discourages nesting.
With so many different kinds of threats to wildlife, most of them manmade, people have to take steps to prevent further loss of wildlife. We are now in the Sixth Great Extinction, one of only six times on planet Earth when major extinction events have occurred. At least 80 mammal species have already gone extinct globally in the last 500 years. A scientist at UC Berkeley has calculated that three quarters of animal species alive today could become extinct within the next 300 years.
There are a lot of things that we as a species should be doing to protect biodiversity. But is cloning woolly mammoths one of them? We don't think so.
VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.