Scientists say woolly mammoths may be cloned and walking around by 2020. But there are other extinct creatures whose DNA could be used to bring them back too. Here are some of the leading contenders for reanimation.
The recent announcement that a scientists in Japan was going to make a serious attempt at bringing the mammoths back has stirred a lot of excitement. There's no denying that seeing a live mammoth, even on video or in a zoo, would be really cool. It's also relatively doable, since mammoths have left fairly well-preserved DNA. But a zoo or an isolated breeding ground for an animal, even a magnificent one, won't leave a huge impression on our culture. It's not like mammoths could ever roam around free. However, there are a few animals who have left some DNA and could be a wonderful influence on our cultures.
We've bred dogs into every size, shape and ability. We have hairless cats. Some people even have spiders. Clearly, pet owners need to blaze new frontiers. How about the dwarf elephant. Dwarf elephants were created when water levels rose, stranding regular elephants on islands - including the Greek isles. The lack of abundant food meant the smaller animals survived. Some dwarf elephants stood only about three feet tall, and they've left a lot of DNA-packed fossils behind. Not only would these guys make great, and adorable, pets, but they'd be a boon as service animals. There are already guide horses for the blind - available to those who want longer-lived companion animals or are allergic to dogs. Soon there could be trained guide elephants for the blind. The advantage of the trunk alone would be incredible.
If that doesn't work, how about a pet dodo? An extremely desiccated dodo foot yielded some mitochondrial DNA. The birds are said to be stupid, but very passive and friendly. And, come on, they wouldn't look any more stupid than a chihuahua.
No, we shouldn't bring back saber-toothed tigers or ancient lions. We shouldn't bring back mammals, as attack animals, at all. Instead, we should be looking to the ancient birds. Contemporary geese are considered to be good watchdogs. They're reasonably intelligent, live a long time, and kind of scary. Most of the people I know have had frightening encounters with flocks of geese. Imagine what those encounters would be if the geese were twelve feet tall and five hundred pounds. Certain species of Moa, an ancient flightless, and huge bird that lived in New Zealand, have left a lot of DNA behind for us to toy with. (Even scarier were the terror birds, who were carnivorous and used their beaks like axes to kill and chop their prey. Since no DNA has been found for these birds, it's unlikely they'll come back. Pity. I bet people would stay away from a property marked "Guarded by Terror Birds.")
If, however, we really want to change the way the world works, we could try bringing back the Neanderthals. Only a few years ago they were considered an entirely separate species from humans, a dead-end in the branching road from early apes to modern humans. They were thought to be unable to think creatively, or imagine things, and some thought that they weren't even able to speak. The idea of re-creating them was considered obscene, especially since a human would be needed as a surrogate to carry a Neanderthal child. Lately, however, evidence has swung the other way. Genes have been discovered that mean that Neanderthal could communicate with complex spoken language. Archeological digs have uncovered Neanderthal art, showing the capability for abstract thought. And recently, it has been shown that some humans share one to four percent of DNA with Neanderthals.
Okay, so the idea might still be obscene. If Neanderthals interbred with humans, any kind of attempt to clone Neanderthal DNA would be human experimentation. The knowledge that could be gained in seeing what, if any, different behavior or capabilities a Neanderthal had from humans would have a profound effect on the way people see themselves and each other.
I'd still prefer a pet dwarf elephant, though.