Woolly Mammoth DNA To Be Cloned, Then Joined With Elephant DNA To Create New Creature

A team of international scientists are extracting high quality DNA from the remains of a woolly mammoth that lived 43,000 years ago, with the aim of joining it with the DNA of an elephant, they told The Siberian Times Thursday. Results from the necropsy of the woolly mammoth in Yakutsk, Sakha Republic — due to wind up Saturday after more than 10 months of analysis — has caused “palpable excitement” within the team of scientists, hailing from Russia, the UK, the United States, Denmark, South Korea, and Moldova.

“The data we are about to receive will give us a high chance to clone the mammoth,” Radik Khayrullin, vice president of the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists, told The Siberian Times in Yakutsk. He urged responsibility in any attempts to clone the woolly mammoth. “It is one thing to clone it for scientific purpose, and another to clone for the sake of curiosity,” he said. Geneticists are reportedly searching for an Asian elephant whose egg could be injected with cloned material from the woolly mammoth. That same or another female elephant would be the surrogate mother of the resulting fertilzed egg. Any resulting wooly mammoth/elephant hybrid baby would have to be female, since there is no y-chromosome material from the wooly mammoth, who was a female. At any rate, such a procedure would take decades to perfect, experts said.

Semyon Grigoriev, head of the Museum of Mammoths of the Institute of Applied Ecology of the North at the North Eastern Federal University, told The Siberian Times that because the evolutionary paths of the mammoth and the elephant diverged so long ago, cloning will be challenging. However, the samples will allow geneticists to completely decode the DNA of the mammoth.

The Russian woolly mammoth was between 50 and 60 years old when she died. Though the upper part of her carcass has been devoured by animals, the lower part (the legs and a detached trunk) was “astonishingly, very well preserved,” Viktoria Egorova, chief of the research and clinical diagnostic laboratory of the medical clinic of North-Eastern Federal University told The Siberian Times. The mammoth, which may have met her demise by falling through a hole in the ice, lay in the permafrost of Maly Lyakhovskiy Island until it was found last May.
The mammoth as a species disappeared from Siberia at the end of the Pleistocene era about 10,000 years ago, with warming climate and hunting by humans thought to be contributing factors. An isolated population of woolly mammoths persisted on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, between the Chukchi and East Siberian Seas, until around 4,000 years ago.

‘We have dissected the soft tissues of the mammoth, and I must say that we didn’t expect such results,” Dr. Egorova told The Siberian Times. The necropsy revealed well-preserved muscle and adipose tissues (loose connective tissues which store fat), and “blood vessels with strong walls,” and within intact blood vessels themselves, for the first time ever in an ancient carcass of an extinct animal, erythrocytes, or red blood cells that contain the oxygen-carrying molecule hemoglobin, Egorova told The Siberian Times.

Biologists have been able to discern cells within the woolly mammoth’s blood that had been in the process of migration (involved in growth and healing) within the lymphoid tissue when the woolly mammoth died, a finding Egorova termed “another great discovery.” The intestines contained remains of the vegetation eaten by the mammoth; its multi-chambered stomach was preserved, as was a kidney, which contained fragments Egorova suspects are kidney stones.

One of the Canadian scientists looking foward to anayzing blood samples from the woolly mammoth is Kevin Campbell, a University of Manitoba professor of environmental and evolutionary physiology who has rearched and written on the subject of hemoglobin in woolly mammoths. In 2010, Campbell wrote a letter in the journal Nature Genetics describing how he had genetically resurrected and analyzed woolly mammoth hemoglobin “to reveal for the first time…the structural underpinnings of a key adaptive physiochemical trait in an extinct species.” He discovered that whereas the efficiency of hemoglobin in elephants to offload oxygen to respiring cells is hampered at low temperatures, mammoth hemoglobin has amino acid substitutions that “provide a unique solution to this problem and thereby minimize energetically costly heat loss.” Since then, Campbell has recreated the hemoglobin of woolly mammoths.

Campbell, who described himself as “bitterly disappointed” that he couldn’t make the necropsy of the woolly mammoth in Russia, said he would be doing the next best thing next week; joining one of his collaborators, Roy E. Weber at Aarhus University, Denmark who will be returning from Russia with some muscle and blood samples extracted from the woolly mammoth. If nothing else, the blood samples may allow Campbell to verify the presence of cold-tolerant hemoglobin in woolly mammoths. “It’s one thing to synthesize mammoth hemoglobin in bacteria: It’s quite another story to study the real thing from a 43,000 year-old specimen,” Campbell told the International Science Times. “No other specimen has ever been so well preserved that we could potentially obtain hemoglobin oxygen-binding data from it. This specimen offers the unique opportunity to collect precisely the same kind of physiologically relevant information from an extinct species as I could from those that are still alive.”

Climate change (as destructive a force as it is for the planet) has proven to be a boon for evolutionary physiologists interested in examining extinct animals. “One of the dirty little secrets of this field is that the increased melting of the North affords the finding of many, many more specimens,” Campbell said. “I don’t want to encourage further global warming, but it is a benefit from permafrost melting and so much being exposed, that they are finding woolly rhinos, bison, a crazy number of ancient horses and specimens in the Canadian and Russian Arctic.” Gold mining and industrial development has also unearthed more prehistoric animals than ever before in human history.

The researchers who peformed the autopsy on the woolly mammoth will hold a conference in Greece in May to announce the results.


New research shows that elephants know how dangerous people are from how they speak

When an elephant killed a Maasai woman collecting firewood near Kenya’s Amboseli National Park in 2007, a group of young Maasai men retaliated by spearing one of the animals.

“It wasn’t the one that had killed the woman, says Graeme Shannon, a behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins. “It was just the first elephant they encountered—a young bull on the edge of a swamp.”

The Maasai spiked him with spears and, their anger spent, returned home. Later, the animal died from his wounds.

Elephants experience those kinds of killings sporadically. Yet the attacks happen often enough that the tuskers have learned that the Maasai—and Maasai men in particular—are dangerous.

The elephants in the Amboseli region are so aware of this that they can even distinguish between Ma, the language of the Maasai, and other languages, says a team of researchers, who report their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The results add to “our growing knowledge of the discriminatory abilities of the elephant mind, and how elephants make decisions and see their world,” says Joyce Poole, an elephant expert with ElephantVoices in Masai Mara, Kenya.

Indeed, previous studies have shown that the Amboseli elephants can tell the cattle-herding, red-robed Maasai apart from their agricultural and more blandly dressed neighbors, the Kamba people, simply by scent and the color of their dress.

The elephants know too that walking through villages on weekends is dangerous, as is crop raiding during the full moon.

They’re equally aware of their other key predator, lions, and from their roars, know how many lions are in a pride and if a male lion (the bigger threat because he can bring down an elephant calf) is present.

And they know exactly how to respond to lions roaring nearby: run them off with a charge.

Intriguingly, when the Amboseli elephants encounter a red cloth, such as those worn by the Maasai, they also react aggressively. But they employ a different tactic when they catch the scent of a Maasai man: They run away. Smelling the scent of a Kamba man, however, troubles them far less.

“They have very clear behavioral responses in all of these situations,” says Karen McComb, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Sussex, in the United Kingdom. “We wondered if they would react differently to different human voices.”

To find out, she and her colleagues played recordings to elephant families of Maasai and Kamba men, as well as Maasai women and boys, speaking a simple phrase in their language: “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.”

Over a two-year period, they carried out 142 such playbacks with 47 elephant families, each time playing a different human voice through a concealed speaker placed 50 meters (164 feet) from the animals. They video-recorded the elephants’ reactions to the various human voices, including a Maasai man’s voice they altered to sound like a woman’s.

As soon as an elephant family heard an adult Maasai man speak, the matriarch didn’t hesitate, the researchers say. “She instantly retreats,” Shannon says. “But it’s a silent retreat. They sometimes make a low rumble, and may smell for him, too, but they’re already leaving, and bunching up into a defensive formation. It’s a very different response to when they hear lions.”

In contrast, the voices of Kamba men didn’t cause nearly as strong a defensive reaction: The elephants didn’t consider the Kamba a serious threat.

“That subtle discrimination is easy for us to do, but then we speak human language,” says Richard Byrne, a cognitive biologist at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. “It’s interesting that elephants can also detect the characteristic differences between the languages.”

The Amboseli elephants were also sufficiently tuned in to the Maasai language that they could tell women’s and boys’ voices from men’s, seldom turning tail in response. “Maasai women and boys don’t kill elephants,” Shannon points out. Nor were the elephants tricked by the man’s altered voice; when they heard it, they left at once.

“The elephants’ decision-making is very precise,” McComb says, “and it illustrates how they’ve adapted where they can to coexist with us. They’d rather run away than tangle with a human predator.”

Why, one wonders, don’t elephants retreat when poachers descend on them?

“Unfortunately, there are going to be things they cannot adapt to, things such as humans’ ability to come after them with automatic weapons or mass poisonings,” McComb says. “And in those situations, we have to protect them—or we will lose them, ultimately.”


Thanks to Da Brayn for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

New research shows that elephants naturally understand human pointing


The next time you need to show an elephant where something is, just point. Chances are he’ll understand what you mean.

New research shows elephants spontaneously understand the communicative intent of human pointing and can use it as a cue to find food.

Richard Byrne and Anna Smet of the University of St. Andrews tested 11 African elephants on what’s known as the object-choice task. In this task, a food reward is hidden in one of several containers and the experimenter signals which one by pointing to it.

People understand pointing, even as young children. But the track record of other animals on the object-choice task is mixed. Domesticated animals, such as dogs, cats, and horses, tend to perform better than wild ones. Even our closest relative, the chimpanzee, typically struggles to understand pointing when it’s used by human caretakers.

What’s so remarkable about the elephants’ success on the object-choice task is that they did it spontaneously. Byrne says that in studies of other species, the animals have had the opportunity to learn the task. This is usually during the experiment itself, which consists of a prolonged series of tests over which the animals come to realize they will get rewarded with food if they follow the line of the human’s pointing.

But the elephants performed as well on the first trial as on later tests and showed no signs of learning over the course of the experiments. The elephants Byrne and Smet tested are used to take tourists on elephant-back rides in southern Africa. They were trained to follow vocal commands only, never gestures. Smet recorded the behavior of the elephants’ handlers over several months and found they never pointed their arms for the elephants. What’s more, the elephants’ ability to understand human pointing did not vary with how long they had lived with people, nor with whether they were captive-born or wild-born. “If they have learned to follow pointing from their past experiences, it’s mystery when and how,” Byrne says. “Rather, it seems they do it naturally.”

In the experiment, Byrne and Smet varied several parameters that often affect children’s and animals’ performance on the task: whether the pointing arm was nearest the correct choice or not; whether the pointer’s arm crossed the body or was always on the side of what was pointed at; and whether the arm broke the silhouette from the elephant’s viewpoint or not. None of these made any difference. Even when the experimenter stood closer to the wrong location than the correct location, the elephants performed a little worse but still mostly responded to where her arm was pointing.

The only condition that truly stymied the elephants was when the experimenter simply looked at the correct location without pointing. Byrne says that elephant eyesight is poor compared to our own, and researchers who work with elephants have commented on how bad they are at identifying things by sight. “It would perhaps have been surprising if they had spontaneously responded to the rather subtle movements of a small primate’s head!” Byrne says.

Elephants are only distantly related to humans, which means that the ability to understand pointing likely evolved separately in both species, and not in a shared ancestor. But why would elephants attend to and understand pointing? One thing elephants do share with humans is that they live in a complex and extensive social network in which cooperation and communication with others play a critical role. Byrne and Smet speculate that pointing relates to something elephants do naturally in their society. “The most likely possibility is that they regularly interpret trunk gestures as pointing to places in space,” Byrne says. Elephants do make many prominent trunk gestures, and Byrne and Smet are currently trying to determine if those motions act as “points” in elephant society.

Smet, Anna F. and Byrne, Richard W. (2013). African Elephants Can Use Human Pointing Cues to Find Hidden Food. Current Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.08.037


Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.