Mammoth article Q&A – Dr. Daniel Fisher, renowned paleontologist

When writing an article in 2012 about the exhibit “Mammoths & Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age”,  it was a great honor to be able to connect with Dr. Daniel Fisher.

His bio at the University of Michigan lists him as Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Claude W. Hibbard Collegiate Professor of Paleontology; and Curator and Director, Museum of Paleontology.  Per the Museum’s website, this Museum is not open to the public. It is a research facility.

His research on mammoth tusks has informed our understanding of mammoth life: for example, how well they ate, whether they grew well or poorly, and in which seasons this growth took place.

My first introduction to his work was through the documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth“, written by Adrienne Ciuffo for National Geographic.  He was one of the international team of scientists to work with Lyuba, the best preserved baby mammoth to-date.

Per his interview here with National Geographic, some of their research on Lyuba provided “…the first indication of milk residues in a mammoth calf, the first indication of a neck hump in a mammoth calf and the first evidence that this neck fat served a primarily thermoregulatory function.”

Here is a picture I took at the exhibit in Boston. This is a replica of Lyuba, the baby mammoth discovered by Yuri Khudi and his sons in the Yamal Peninsula, Siberia.

LyubainBoston

Dr. Fisher gave so many fascinating answers to my questions.   I was not able to include all of them in the article. He has very graciously enabled me to share them online below:

1. Can you describe your experience with Lyuba?  What she felt like, what she smelled like, whether she was different from other mammoths you’ve worked with (other than being so well-preserved)?  

At the time when we first examined her, she was frozen, and therefore quite hard on the surface, and with no strong smell.  She had been exposed on the river bank for almost a year, and this meant that she had lost a great deal of her original water content, so this also contributed to her firm surface and relative lack of smell, even as she began to thaw, at the time of our first dissection.  When completely thawed, and when we opened her viscera, her organs were soft and wet inside, somewhat compressed, but otherwise, not so different from those of a fresh carcass.  The smell of her internal tissues was not strong, but mildly sour, which as you probably read, was one of the things that first alerted me to her unusual manner of preservation.

2. The documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth” and the exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science gives some detail about your work with tusks and teeth.  Can you tell me more about how you became interested in that part of Mammoths?  How was it discovered that so much information could be found within tusks and teeth?

I first started down this line of investigation when I was working on one of the first mastodon sites that I excavated here in Michigan.  There was a beautiful pair of tusks found at that site, but they had been bit by the backhoe doing the excavation (for a small pond) and were broken in several places.  On the broken surfaces, I saw a series of very regular dark layers, alternating with lighter-colored layers, all paralleling the surface of the conical pulp cavity at the growing end of the tusk.  It seemed clear to me that these were some sort of growth feature, and their regularity suggested that they might represent features that recurred regularly in time, like tree rings.  I realized that if this were the case, then there might be even more we could learn from the thickness and composition of these layers.  It took several years of work to be entirely sure that these really were annual features, but one discovery led to another, and it’s still unfolding in much this fashion.

3. There seems to be more interest in finding molecular fossils.  Do you see this changing how you collect or work with fossils?  Is this changing how you teach your courses?

Yes, there is more interest in these aspects of fossil material, at least in specimens from relatively recent time periods.  In fact, this doesn’t change our procedures much, because what is required to preserve specimens for molecular analyses is not that different from what is required for the best tissue-level and anatomical study.  There is some change in the content of courses, but these different topics still require their own techniques to handle their own types of data.  We therefore tend to focus most instruction on a discipline by discipline basis.  Students thus get their interdisciplinary exposure through taking multiple courses and working with a variety of colleagues.

4. Part of my article will discuss the possibility of cloning Mammoths. Recently Smart News (a blog from the Smithsonian) reported that Hwang Woo Suk intends to have a live Mammoth in six years.  Do you want to comment on this?  Do you see any benefits or disadvantages to bringing Mammoths back to life? 

I will be surprised if the quality of cellular … really, sub-cellular … preservation is adequate for this.  If only on general principles, I wouldn’t want to absolutely rule out the possibility of cloning, but at this point in our knowledge of these things, it’s a real “long shot.”  There might be some things we would learn if it were accomplished, but it is not self-evident that this would provide clear answers to critical questions.  In other words, learning from any technical accomplishment is more like building a house than opening an treasure-chest.  What you get out of it depends entirely on the design and quality of the study.

5. With cloning, my understanding is that scientists would need to use elephants to do this.  But wouldn’t this create a new species: part-elephant and part-Mammoth? Why or why not? 

There are different cloning procedures being considered, and the somatic cell approach planned by the South Korean investigators could in principle come a little closer to giving you a “mammoth”, but it would still be a “mammoth” … in quotes … that is, you would still rely on some of the cellular structures and developmental “machinery” of elephants.

6. Recently, scientists in Japan reported that they have created fertile egg cells from stem cells.  Do you think this research *might* have implications for bringing extinct animals back to life? Why or why not? 

You would still have to recover viable cells, in this case, stem cells, from preserved carcasses of extinct organisms, and this is the big stumbling block.

7. Do you keep in touch with Yuri Khudi or his family?  If so, how are they doing and do they continue to learn about Mammoths?  (Does his wife still object to Lyuba’s name?) 

We met with one of his sons during later field work and will certainly try to contact him if we are again in the area.  I am in regular contact with museum staff in Salekhard, so there may well be additional opportunities.  From what I have heard, the Khudi family is all doing well.  I don’t know how Yuri’s wife feels now about the name of the mammoth, but even when we spent time with the family, back in 2008, it was not anything that she dwelt on.

8. Are there any questions I haven’t asked that you wish I had? 

Right now, elephants are facing an enormous and growing threat from poaching driven by the ivory market.  If we want to continue to learn about all these animals, elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and their relatives, it is critical that we save elephants.  In another sense, mammoths are also “endangered” — to be sure, they are extinct and now past direct harm from us, but the ivory trade still consumes many tons of mammoth ivory each year, and with it goes untold amounts of information on the biology and environments of mammoths.  The single greatest thing we could do for elephants and mammoths is to encourage use of substitutes for ivory.

1. Article I wrote in the Valley News that includes some of the comments above from Dr. Fisher: http://www.vnews.com/home/3694232-95/mammoths-mammoth-exhibit-mastodons, January 7, 2013

2. Dr. Fisher’s bio at the University of Michigan is here: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/paleontology/research/danielfisher

3. His bio on National Geographic for the documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth” can be found here: http://natgeotv.com/asia/waking-the-baby-mammoth/biographies

4. And the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology is found here: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/paleontology/

Mammoth article Q&A – Dr. Edward M. Berger, Biology Professor, Dartmouth

This is the second post related to the article I wrote in the Valley News regarding mammoths and the exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science.  Like Dr. Sloboda (post further below), Dr. Berger has also graciously enabled me to include more of his comments for that article here.  His responses to my questions took place through email in 2012.

Dr. Edward Berger has been a Professor of Biology at Dartmouth since 1984.  According to his CV, he has “reviewed manuscripts, grant proposals, fellowship proposals, textbook chapters and outlines for textbooks.”  Some of those publications include Cell, Nature, and Genetics.

From 1969 – 2000, he was regularly asked to speak at universities, institutes and conferences throughout the US and Internationally. 

He was Visiting Research Professor at the University of Patras, Greece, in 1981 and between 1986-87, he was Program Director for Cell Biology at the National Science Foundation.

In 1992, he was a panelist on Science Friday (currently a syndicated program of NPR). Among his many professional associations, he is an elected member of the Human Genome Project.

He was one of the very first Dartmouth professors to respond to me.  Given his expertise in genetics, I was thrilled!
1. How do you feel about (if you’re comfortable discussing this–or: what do you hope people will consider when deciding whether we should engage in) cloning extinct animals? Why?

CLONING EXTINCT ANIMALS IS NO DIFFERENT THAN MAINTAINING NEAR EXTINCT SPECIES IN ZOOS. NEITHER ARE IN THEIR NATURAL ENVIRONMENT/HABITAT AND EXIST ONLY BECAUSE THEY ARE VALUED BY PEOPLE.

2. What would be the potential benefits of cloning extinct animals?  Could this bring any significant understanding to our life today?

HOPEFULLY YES, IN TERMS OF LEARNING ABOUT THEIR BEHAVIOR, PHYSIOLOGY, METABOLISM, ETC

3. What would be the disadvantages of the above?

DISAPPOINTMENT

4. Some people say that cloning [extinct species] won’t happen in our lifetime; others say that it could happen within the next decade or so.  What do you think and why? What technology is needed in order to do this?

NOT LIKELY. INTACT NUCLEI ARE NOT GOING TO BE AVAILABLE, AND THE JURASSIC PARK MODEL IS PURE BUT HIGHLY ENTERTAINING FANTASY

5. My understanding of Jack Horner‘s How to Build a Dinosaur is that we could potentially bring a dinosaur back to life by stimulating specific genes contained with a chicken’s egg and suppressing other genes.  Why couldn’t the same theory be applied to Mammoths?

WE DON’T HAVE A CLUE REGARDING THE QUALITATIVE OR QUANTITATIVE GENETIC DIFFERENCES BETWEEN AN ELEPHANT AND MAMMOTH, OR BETWEEN A DINOSAUR AND  BIRD. IT’S LIKE ASKING WHETHER YOU CAN TURN A PIGS EAR INTO A SILK PURSE. IS THERE ANY PRECEDENT FOR THAT IDEA?

6. Why is DNA so hard to find in fossils?

IT BREAKS DOWN, EVEN IN AMBER WHERE OXYGEN CAN PENETRATE AND RESULT IN DNA BREAKDOWN. ONE CAN RECOVER SNIPPETS, BUT NOT ENOUGH TO RECONSTRUCT A GENOME

7. I understand that, in order to clone a Mammoth, this would need to be done with modern elephants, and it would take a number of generations before a “true” Mammoth was born.  But wouldn’t that be creating an entirely new species?  How would it not be part elephant, part mammoth?

THEORETICALLY, NO. THE EGG OF AN ELEPHANT, SUPPORTING THE DEVELOPMENT OF A MAMMOTH NUCLEUS WOULD RESULT IN A MAMMOTH IN ONE GENERATION…MUCH OF EARLY DEVELOPMENT IS PROGRAMMED BY MATERNAL GENES ACTING IN THE FERTILIZED EGG, PLUS THERE ARE GENETIC DETERMINANTS IN CELL ORGANELLES THAT COME DIRECTLY FROM THE EGG.

Article I wrote in the Valley News which includes comments from this Q&A from Dr. Berger: Could Ancient Giants Be Cloned? (Is It Possible and Is It Wise?) http://www.vnews.com/lifetimes/3694233-95/cloning-mammoth-mammoths-extinct, January 7, 2013

Whether to recreate extinct species – recent opinions on Scientific American

If you do follow or have followed paleontology news in the past several years, you know that the question of recreating (or cloning) extinct species is part of the conversation.  I am not supporting these views; I add them out of interest.

Here is an opinion piece from the June 2013 edition of Scientific American:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-efforts-bring-extinct-species-back-from-dead-miss-point

“The idea of bringing back extinct species holds obvious gee-whiz appeal and a respite from a steady stream of grim news. Yet with limited intellectual bandwidth and financial resources to go around, de-extinction threatens to divert attention from the modern biodiversity crisis. According to a 2012 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, some 20,000 species are currently in grave danger of going extinct.”

(This piece echoes sentiments expressed by Dr. Roger Sloboda in 2012 when I questioned him: please see an earlier post below on this blog)

Here is the response to it in the September 2013 Special Issue of Scientific American from George Church, who champions recreating extinct species and synthetic biology:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=george-church-de-extinction-is-a-good-idea

Here are some of George Church’s ideas specific to mammoths:

“Mammoths could keep the region colder by: (a) eating dead grass, thus enabling the sun to reach spring grass, whose deep roots prevent erosion; (b) increasing reflected light by felling trees, which absorb sunlight; and (c) punching through insulating snow so that freezing air penetrates the soil. Poachers seem far less likely to target Arctic mammoths than African elephants.”

Here is what is written on the Pleistocene Park’s website. I highly recommend reading all that is written on this link (not just what I’ve highlighted): http://www.pleistocenepark.ru/en/background/

PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying that Church’s comments or opinions are in any way supported by or linked to this park.  I am merely making a connection on my own from what I’ve read.

“At the end of the Pleistocene, steppe ecosystems were the dominant ecosystems on the planet. In Europe, Northern Asia and Northern America the Mammoth steppe ecosystem dominated…Animal species varied from ecosystem to ecosystem, but the roles played by these different types of animals remained relatively constant. For an ecosystem to be sustainable it must have large heavy grazers, such elephants, ruminants such as cows and goats, predators suchs as wolves and tigers etc. Steppe ecosystems were extremely stable, since they developed over hundreds of thousands of years and survived several deep glaciations and warm periods similar to the Holocene…If we want to effect a reverse ecosystem shift, we need to artificially increase the number of animals in a limited area for a period of time sufficient for pasture development. Animals would trample all vegetation including shrubs trees and moss. By fertilizing the soil they would increase the rate of biogeochemical cycling. More nutrients would accumulate in the soil, allowing higher grass productivity. Higher transpiration would keep soils dry. Under continuous pasture pressure and fertilization, grasses would once again become the dominant vegetation, and in combination with various steppe animal species they would form a modern steppe ecosystem, which would be sustainable and ready to expand.”

Mammoth article Q&A – Dr. Roger D. Sloboda, Biology Professor, Dartmouth

In 2012, the Boston Museum of Science had a temporary exhibit on Mammoths that included Lyuba (the best-preserved baby mammoth to-date).  I interviewed a number of professors and people for the articles that were eventually published by the Valley News.  But I was so interested by the information they shared that I wasn’t able to include in the articles.

One of the people I interviewed, Dr. Roger Sloboda, has very graciously enabled me to share some of that info on this blog. Would that everyone could interview Dr. Sloboda!  He is a man of strong opinions, great wisdom, and a fabulous sense of humour!

My favorite quote from him when I spoke with him on the phone was: “I’m willing to bet Romney’s tax rebate that we won’t be able to [clone a mammoth]!”

I asked if I could write up a brief bio of Dr. Sloboda using information from the Dartmouth website.  He sent me the following:

Roger D. Sloboda, who holds the Ira Allen Eastman Chair at Dartmouth, has been a professor at Dartmouth for the past 37 years (a fact he is finding more and more amazing of late).

Prior to arriving at Dartmouth, he received a PhD in developmental biology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and conducted postdoctoral research in cell biology and biochemistry at Yale. In addition to his research and teaching duties, he has in the past served Dartmouth as Dean of Graduate Studies and as Associate Provost for Research.

Currently, he is doing a year long stint (that has morphed into two…) as Interim Associate Provost for Research.  His teaching responsibilities include courses in introductory biology, cell biology, and biochemistry.  With respect to science education, he is the PI on an award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and as such directs an innovative teaching program aimed at retaining undergraduates in the sciences.

Prof. Sloboda was also named an Education Fellow in the Life Sciences by the National Academies (with Dartmouth colleague F. John Kull, with whom he teaches the HHMI course mentioned above). Education Fellows represented 19 American colleges and universities that worked together to design strategies for enhancing undergraduate biology education. 

Finally, Sloboda also conducts research currently funded by the National Science Foundation, studying the assembly and disassembly of the flagella of the green alga, Chlamydomonas. The fact that the flagella of this organism are almost identical in composition and function to human flagella, yet humans are separated from Chlamydomonas by several billion years of evolution, leaves him almost (but not quite) speechless every time he thinks about it.

1. How do you feel about (if you’re comfortable discussing this–or: what do you hope people will consider when deciding whether we should engage in) cloning extinct animals? Why?

WELL, I DON’T REALLY THINK MUCH OF THIS.  IF YOU WANT ME TO STRETCH FOR AN ANSWER, PERHAPS AN EXTINCT ORGANISM HAS SOME BIOCHEMICAL FUNCTION, LOST BY EVOLUTION IN TODAY’S ANIMALS, THAT MIGHT BE USEFUL FOR US TODAY.  BUT TO ME, CLONING EXTINCT ANIMALS IS A WASTE OF TIME AND RESOURCES.

WHAT WE SHOULD BE DOING IS PROMOTING STEM CELL RESEARCH (BANNED BY BUSH).  IT IS HERE WHERE WE ARE LOSING GROUND TO OTHER COUNTRIES.

2. What would be the potential benefits of cloning extinct animals?  Could this bring any significant understanding to our life today?

I CANNOT THINK OF ANY, EXCEPT THE VAGUE POSSIBILITY MENTIONED ABOVE.  PERHAPS OTHERS HAVE THOUGHT MORE DEEPLY ABOUT THE POSITIVES, THOUGH.  I HAVE TO ADMIT TO NOT HAVING THOUGHT ABOUT IT MUCH.  WE HAVE MORE PROBLEMS TOWARD WHICH OUR CLONING RESOURCES COULD BE DIRECTED.

3. What would be the disadvantages of the above?

SEE JURASSIC PARK…

4. My understanding of Jack Horner‘s How to Build a Dinosaur is that we could potentially bring a dinosaur back to life by stimulating specific genes contained with a chicken’s egg and suppressing other genes.  Why couldn’t the same theory be applied to Mammoths?

I KIND OF THINK THIS IS SO MUCH BULL.  A DINOSAUR IS A REPTILE.  A CHICKEN IS A BIRD, THOUGH EVOLVED FROM A BRANCH OF THE DINOSAURS.  PRESUMABLY, THE CHICKEN HAS A LOT OF GENES IN COMMON WITH THE DINOSAUR, OTHERS THAT ARE NOT, AND OTHERS THAT THE DINOSAUR HAS AND THE CHICKEN HAS NOT.  HENCE, I WOULD SAY IT IS IMPOSSIBLE, UNLESS SOMEONE SHOWS THAT ALL OF THE GENES IN A DINOSAUR ARE PRESENT IN A CHICKEN.

5. Why is DNA so hard to find in fossils?

IT DEPENDS ON THE FOSSIL.  MOST FOSSILS, AS PEOPLE THINK OF THEM, ARE IMPRESSIONS IN ROCKS.  IF FROZEN, LIKE THE GUY THEY FOUND IN THE ALPS, THEN LIKELY SOME GOOD DNA REMAINS.  ROCK HARD FOSSILIZED BONES, LACKING ALL WATER, ETC. LIKELY CONTAIN NO USEFUL DNA.

6. Lyuba (the well-preserved baby mammoth) brought scientists from all over the world together to study her.  Is this a rare occurrence? Do scientists usually work together like that?

SCIENCE IS BECOMING MORE AND MORE COLLABORATIVE, YES.  IN  THE CASE OF THIS SPECIMEN, IT IS THE ONLY ONE, HENCE FOLKS FROM ALL OVER WANT TO STUDY IT, AND SCIENCE SHARES DATA AND INFORMATION.  IT IS HOW SCIENCE WORKS.

7. I understand that, in order to clone a Mammoth, this would need to be done with modern elephants, and it would take a number of generations before a “true” Mammoth was born.  But wouldn’t that be creating an entirely new species?  How would it not be part elephant, part mammoth?

AS I UNDERSTAND THE CURRENT PROCEDURES, IN CLONING THE NUCLEUS OF THE ANIMAL TO BE CLONED IS PLACED INTO THE ENUCLEATED EGG OF THE HOST ANIMAL.  THUS, YOU WOULD TAKE AN ELEPHANT EGG, REMOVE ITS NUCLEUS, THEN INSERT THE NUCLEUS FROM THE  MAMMOTH, AND THEN INSERT THE RENUCLEATED EGG INTO A PSEUDOPREGNANT ELEPHANT FEMALE.  IF GROWN TO BIRTH, THE ANIMAL WOULD BE GENERATED UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MAMMOTH GENES (EXCEPT FOR THE VERY EARLY STAGES OF CELL DIVISION AFTER FERTILIZATION).  IF YOU ONLY HAVE ONE MAMMOTH, AND IF HE IS A MALE, THEN YOU CAN ONLY GENERATE MAMMOTH MALES, AND HENCE NEVER A ‘SPECIES’ THAT COULD REPRODUCE.

Article I wrote in the Valley News which includes comments from this Q&A from Dr. Sloboda: Could Ancient Giants Be Cloned? (Is It Possible and Is It Wise?) http://www.vnews.com/lifetimes/3694233-95/cloning-mammoth-mammoths-extinct, January 7, 2013