Long before San Francisco became synonymous with hippies during the Summer of Love and even before the California Gold Rush brought hopeful prospectors to pan in its rivers, the city of hills and cable cars was home to herds of woolly mammoths, who roamed the once-grassy valley during the Pleistocene Epoch, 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago. Yet even though the distant relative of the modern elephant died out about 10,000 years ago, the discovery of woolly-mammoth remains reminds us that we are not the only creatures to have ruled the planet—that once, long ago, this Earth belonged to prehistoric animals that still spark our imaginations and challenge our notions of conservation and extinction.
Last week a fragment of a woolly mammoth’s jaw was unearthed by a construction worker while digging at the site for San Francisco’s future Transitbay Transit Center downtown. One hundred ten feet below the surface, crane operator Brandon Valasik noticed an object “too perfect to be a rock.” Valasik would come to later find out that he’d stumbled upon a 10,000- to 11,000-year-old treasure—a tooth and a piece of jaw from a woolly mammoth.
According to paleontologist James Allen, the fossil is not only an important find, but also a well-preserved one at that. The tooth still contains its original enamel, and beyond revealing more about the giant mammals that once inhabited the Bay Area, it can provide clues to more modern issues such as tectonics and seismology.
In Russia, however, the woolly mammoth may not be as extinct as we once believed. The North-Eastern Federal University in Russia claims that scientists have found frozen woolly mammoth fragments that may contain living cells such as hair, soft tissues, and bone marrow. The mammoth remains and potentially accompanying living material are believed to be buried 328 feet below the surface in Siberia.
In a science fiction twist echoing the plot of Jurassic Park, Semyon Grigoryev—who helped lead the expedition that made the discovery—said that a group of Korean scientists on the team are intent on finding living woolly mammoth cells in order to attempt to clone the long extinct animal.
While it will take a month of lab work to determine if the cells are viable cloning material, it’s not too early to begin wondering about the implications and possible benefits of cloning an extinct prehistoric animal.
With the recent release of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of the 100 most endangered species and the exciting discovery of a new primate eclipsed by the threat of the bushmeat market, it won’t be long before amazing animals of our current age disappear from the planet forever. Poaching has already decimated the Earth’s populations of tigers, elephants, and rhinos, and one day all we may have left is a vial of their DNA and the technology set forth by the cloning of a woolly mammoth.
Are you hopeful that scientists will one day be capable of cloning extinct animals, including species like the polar bear, which could go extinct in our lifetime?
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Liz Acosta is a writer, artist, and activist living in San Francisco. She likes to practice what she calls "accessible activism," doing what she can to change the world. She loves dogs, photography, bicycles, IPAs, and Britney Spears.