A mammoth debacle

September 14, 2021 • 11:00 am

As I wrote this morning in the Hili dialogue, and as Carl Zimmer describes in the NYT article below (click on screenshot), a team of scientists and entrepreneurs has formed a company called Colossal that aims to “bring back the woolly mammoth.” They raised fifteen million dollars in funding to do this job (cf. P. T. Barnum). The motivating force for this endeavor is well-known Harvard geneticist George Church, who for years has said that a “resurrected” woolly mammoth, constructed using DNA sequence from mammoths frozen in the permafrost, was right around the corner.

Well, the corner hasn’t been turned, and, if I don’t miss my guess, it won’t be.  This project is fraught with so many problems that the likelihood of producing a woolly mammoth is close to zero.

In fact it IS zero, because they’re not going to resurrect that extinct creature. What they are doing is making a genetically modified Asian elephant by inserting into its genome a maximum of sixty mammoth genes that they think differentiate the modern species from the extinct one: genes that involve hairiness, cold tolerance, amount of fat, and so on. What they’d get would be a genetic chimera, an almost entirely Asian elephant but one that is hairier, chunkier, and more tolerant of cold. That is NOT a woolly mammoth, nor would it behave like a woolly mammoth, for they’re not inserting behavior genes.

There’s more below:

Further, a lot of other genes differ between a mammoth and an Asian elephant. What guarantee is there that the inserted mammoth genes would be expressed correctly, or even work at all in concert with the Asian elephant developmental system?

But it gets worse. Since you can’t implant a transgenic embryo into an elephant mom (we don’t know how to do that, and we would get just one or two chances), Church had this bright idea:

Initially, Dr. Church envisioned implanting embryos into surrogate female elephants. But he eventually soured on the idea. Even if he could figure out in vitro fertilization for elephants — which no one has done before — building a herd would be impractical, since he would need so many surrogates.

Instead, Dr. Church decided to make an artificial mammoth uterus lined with uterine tissue grown from stem cells. “I’m not making a bold prediction this is going to be easy,” he said. “But everything up to this point has been relatively easy. Every tissue we’ve gone after, we’ve been able to get a recipe for.”

An artificial mammoth uterus? Seriously? If you think that’s gonna work, I have some land in Florida I’d like to sell you. Of course, if you’re going to breed these things, you’d have to make two of them of opposite sexes. Could they even do that?

And beside this, there are all the ethical questions about releasing a large number of chimeric elephants into Siberia. That, itself, is unethical; Lord knows what they’d do to the ecosystem (my view is that, if they even succeeded in creating these things, they’d die off within a generation or so). From the article:

Is it humane to produce an animal whose biology we know so little about? Who gets to decide whether they can be set loose, potentially to change the ecosystems of tundras in profound ways?

“There’s tons of trouble everyone is going to encounter along the way,” said Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California Santa Cruz and the author of “How to Clone a Mammoth.”

. . . .Heather Browning, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, said that whatever benefits mammoths might have to the tundra will need to be weighed against the possible suffering that they might experience in being brought into existence by scientists.

“You don’t have a mother for a species that — if they are anything like elephants — has extraordinarily strong mother-infant bonds that last for a very long time,” she said. “Once there is a little mammoth or two on the ground, who is making sure that they’re being looked after?”

My opinion of this project is expressed more tersely by geneticist and author Adam Rutherford:

And he goes on to explain why.

But let’s get the take of a real expert on mammoths, Victoria “Tori” Herridge, a paleontologist and writer at London’s Natural History Museum who’s written extensively about this project. Her opinion is pretty much the same as mine and Rutherford’s.  Here’s the first tweet of a long thread in which, while expressing admiration for George Church, she simply takes the project apart. I’d recommend you go through what she says if you have interest in this project.

Moreover, now, as opposed to the artificial mammoth uterus idea, the company says they will implant the egg (derived perhaps from a stem cell, something that has been done only with mice so far) into an AFRICAN ELEPHANT. Most zoos don’t keep that species because it’s big and dangerous, as well as endangered.

Well, either way: surrogate elephant mom or surrogate mammoth uterus, it’s a wash.

Readers’ wildlife photos

September 14, 2021 • 8:00 am

We have a decent backlog of photos now thanks to kind readers, but they continue to diminish at the rate of one batch per day, so please send yours in. Thanks.

Today we have regular Doug Hayes, who takes some lovely photos of the visitors to his bird feeders for his “Breakfast Crew” series. Doug’s captions are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

Here is the 16th installment of the Breakfast Crew from Richmond, Virginia. The yard has been busy as usual, with a slightly different lineup. Last year, we were mobbed with starlings. This year, the cardinals have taken over with a big population explosion. It is not unusual to see as many as ten at the feeders or on the ground scavenging at one time. The females seem to get along pretty well, but the males spend much of their time chasing each other away from the food – and the females!

A juvenile American robin (Turdus migratorius) hanging out on the chicken wire enclosure we built around our tomato plants to protect them from squirrels (the little tree rats don’t eat the tomatoes, but will take a bite out of them just to assure themselves that they don’t like tomatoes).

A male house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) surveying the yard from the pomegranate tree that overlooks the feeders. These guys are as numerous as the cardinals. I haven’t seen any purple finches yet. They got hit pretty hard last year by Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, an eye disease that can cause blindness. The house finches seem to have weathered the storm OK.

Male and female house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) sharing breakfast.

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) snags a tasty seed. Usually, the chickadees will grab a bit of food and fly away immediately. If things are quiet, they will place a seed between their feet while perching on the feeder and peck away the hull to get at the kernel inside.

Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) snags a peanut.

It takes more than pouring rain to keep this Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) away from the feeders.

A young Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) hanging out on the tomato plant enclosure. Usually, the thrashers keep to the bushes surrounding the yard, but will go for the suet feeders when I place them out.

A pair of Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) just chilling. Like their cousins the pigeons, they don’t seem to be the brightest birds. I frequently see them just sitting out in the open after they have eaten their fill, totally unconcerned about the hawks that patrol the neighborhood.

This male Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is king of the feeder. After feeding, he will perch a few feet away from the feeder and drive off any other hummingbirds that approach his territory and food source. He will even go after larger birds that get too close.

Good morning!  This cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) seems to greet the day with a smile.

Baldy, a male cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a regular to the feeders. His head has been bare all summer, but now it seems as if he is sprouting some new feathers. There is a big debate among birders if this loss of feathers is part of the molting process or some kind of parasite infestation. I have seen this in cardinals, grackles, wrens and thrashers, sometimes with patches of feathers missing from other parts of the birds’ bodies. None of them seem to be ill or discomforted by it.

Everybody loves peanuts! This Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) seems to have snagged a bit more than it could chew. It flew off with its prize to work on it in private.

A Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor). Another shy feeder. These little guys hit the feeder and fly off immediately with the first thing they can grab. It is unusual for them to linger more than a few seconds.

Chip Monk, the Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) returns. I had not seen Chip in over a month, but we had some pretty heavy rain a few days ago and Chip was back. For some reason, rainy weather seems to bring her out into the yard and she will spend much of the day scrounging for seeds in the wet grass and plant beds.

Camera info:  Sony A1 mirrorless camera body, Sony FE 200-600 zoom lens + 1.4X teleconverter, some shots hand held or supported by an iFootage Cobra 2 monopod and gimbal head, ISO 5000, f/11, shutter speed varies according to lighting conditions, in-body image stabilization and lens image stabilization on for hand held shots.

Readers’ wildlife photos

September 13, 2021 • 8:00 am

Stephen Barnard is back with some photos of the many elk (Cervus canadensis) that frequent his property. His narrative is indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

This year, because of the drought and irrigation restrictions, I’m not farming my fields across the creek. As an unanticipated result, the elk are there like I’ve never seen before at this time of year. Normally, they show up in October when hunting season starts and they get pushed around. This year they feel safe because there’s no farming activity.

The rut hasn’t started yet. The bulls are mixed together in the herds more-or-less peacefully. When it does start (I’ll hear bugling) there will be fireworks.

Lovely BBC video of meerkats standing on videographers

September 12, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are a type of social mongoose that lives at the very southern part of Africa. We all know them and love them because they’re cute and they stand on their rear legs when surveying their surroundings for danger.  The BBC’s Planet Earth has filmed them so extensively that they’ve become inured to the presence of humans, and even stand on photographers’ bodies and heads.

Here’s an adorable and short BBC video showing this behavior. Look for a quip about the size of the director’s buttocks!

Readers’ wildlife photos

September 6, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today I’m showing a melange of photos contributed by readers who sent in just one or a few photos. Their captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Here’s a Canada Goose family (Branta canadensis) from Laurie Berg:

From Joe Dickinson:

These bats are spectacled flying foxes (Pteropus conspicillatus) seen by the thousands in downtown Cairns, Australia.

This monkey is certainly in the genus Ateles, likely Ateles chamek, the Peruvian spider monkey.

From Ken Phelps:

Caught some early morning light on an Arbutus tree whose peeling bark seems to be sending out a message. About what I can’t say, but they have been stressed by fungal organisms and warmer, drier weather in recent years. Ours seem to be doing pretty well, but we do see a lot of mangy looking trees in the area.

And some travel photos by Jean Greenberg:

We went to Tibet in the summer of 2009. It was when Michael Jackson died, because we learned about it while we were there. We traveled with my former postdoc and her husband, who was all about taking fancy pictures and connecting with people everywhere even though he could not speak the language. To get pictures of people, he often posed with them. The pictures below, except for a few, were taken by my late husband Adam Driks.


A yak with a fancy saddle:

Nomad lady:

A sheltered prayer wheel:

Readers’ wildlife photos

September 4, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today we have photos from reader Dave, whose photography website is here. Note that he sells a different print each month. The titles (indented) are his; click on the photos to enlarge them (all photos ©DSF_ All Rights Reserved).

Sunlit Azaleas:

Botanic Spring:

Honeybeeing (Apis mellifera):

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica):

Icelandic Horse (Equus ferus caballus):

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos):

Basking Butterfly:

Floral Hoverfly (Syrphidae):

Autumn Arrival:

Japanese Maple:

Readers’ wildlife photos

September 2, 2021 • 8:00 am

Send those photos in, please! We’re running low. Before we start, can anyone identify this raptor that perched over Botany Pond yesterday? The ducks were upset, quacked, and then formed a pack in the pond and remained very still. I took a photo, but it was hard because the bird was high up in a tree above the pond. So far we’ve never had a raptor attack a duck or duckling, but the adults still get freaked out when they see one.

Today we have a melange of California photos from Joe Dickinson. Joe’s captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

These are from a recent trip to the Tomales Bay/Point Reyes area.  

We were visited this time by a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura).  I believe the sunning of wings has to do with reducing parasite load, rather than drying the wings as cormorants do.

These photos of a fishing shack give some sense of the range of tides.

Nearby is the Point Reyes National Elk refuge with a nice population of Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis).

Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) also are found within the refuge as well as elsewhere on Point Reyes.

This moon jelly (probably genus Aurelia) actually is at a cabin on the other side of the bay where stayed a few years ago. 

Nearby is the Marshall Store, home of the best BBQ oysters on the planet. 

I call this the “Entropy Boat”.  We have watched it slowly decay over the years.

There is a very nice walk to Kehoe Beach with this freshwater lagoon alongside.  

Readers’ wildlife photos

August 31, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today we have more African mammal photos from Delia Randolph, who lives in Kenya. Her captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Tommy’s Gazelle, same site on Mara where my last photos came from :

Grant’s Gazelle (Nanger granti)  same site.

Visitors often get Tommy’s (full name Thomson’s gazelle = Eudorcas thomsonii) and Grant’s confused. The black stripe on the Tommy is quite variable and some Grant’s have a black stripe, too. And though they are smaller than Grant’s this is also variable. How can you tell them apart? It’s easy. Grant’s have pants – that is the white goes above their tail.

Even ugly animals like spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) are cute when they are babies.

And beautiful animals are even more cute when young! Common eland (Taurotragus oryx). One of my favourite biology writers, Jared Diamond, famously argued that African animals were uniquely difficult to tame. The docile eland proves this wrong: they have been successfully domesticated in Russia and South Africa.

The African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) needs no introduction. Their cousins, the North African elephant (Loxodonta africana pharaohensis) were also domesticated by the Carthaginians (Hannibal famous crossing of the Alps with war elephants).

Re the photos below: Apologies in advance for any anthropomorphism or metooism.

Lioness having a little tiff with lioness (Panthera leo):

Lioness not speaking to lion:

Lioness making up with lion. And they lived happily ever after:

The babies 😊

Readers’ wildlife photos (and video)

August 28, 2021 • 8:00 am

Keep those photos coming in, people! Thanks.

Today’s photos and a bonus video, come from reader Jim McCormac, whose “massive photo website” is here and whose blog is here. His captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Here’s some stuff from a recent West Virginia trip, most notably perhaps, bumblebees caught in the act of pollinating one of the bottle gentians.

Sunrise at Bear Rocks at Dolly Sods, West Virginia. I was at a conference in the nearby Canaan Valley recently, and tacked on time to visit this amazing mountaintop on August 22.

Although I saw no bears at Bear Rocks, I did see this beautiful American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) in the Canaan Valley. Bears in this region tend to be quite wary, as they are hunted (seasonally), and people train their dogs using bears year-round. I spotted this one a ways off, was able to get in a good position for photos as he approached, but as soon as he made me, he quickly disappeared into the forest.

A tough Red Spruce (Picea rubens) ekes out an existence at Dolly Sods. Strong prevailing winds from the west, often accelerating to gale force, pound the trees relentlessly and those that are prominently exposed exhibit one-sided branching. This is known as the Krummholz Effect (German = “twisted wood”). Branches on the upwind side are stunted by the constant strong winds.

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) still had some flowers, but mostly had passed to the fruiting stage. This elegant member of the Evening-primrose Family (Onagraceae) is one of the most photographed wildflowers of northern and montane habitats, where it can form breathtakingly large colonies.

Long-fruited Sedge (Carex folliculata) with its distinctive elongate fruit (in sedge-speak, the fruit are termed perigynia). In my neck of the woods – flatland Ohio – this species is absent and it was a treat to see it again. Long-fruited Sedge is a northerner, extending southward at higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains.

Glimmering dewdrops of death adorn the specialized hairs of Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) leaves. I saw many of these plants in a bog at Dolly Sods. The sticky droplets lure small insects, who are stuck fast in the viscid liquid. This triggers a reaction in the leaf, which slowly enfolds the victim. After extracting nutrients from the insect, leaving a desiccated husk, the leaf unfurls and is ready for more action. This carnivory is an adaptation for life in nutrient-deficient bog substrates.

A botanical highlight of Dolly Sods was a colony of Narrow-leaved Gentian (Gentiana linearis). It is another northerner whose range extends southward in the Appalachians at higher elevations. Dolly Sods is near its southern limits. As it was the first time that I had clapped eyes on this species, I was particularly pleased to encounter the beautiful gentian.

It got even better when I saw that numerous bumblebees were seeking nectar at the odd flowers. This group of “bottle” gentians are primarily if not exclusively pollinated by large bumblebees in the genus Bombus (I think the one in the photo is the Common Eastern Bumblebee, B. impatiens). The blue petals are fused together forming a tube, with a small opening at the summit. Colorful stripes acting as nectar guides adorn the interior of the flower, and while we cannot see them, the bees certainly do.

The following video shows bumblebees working a flower cluster. Once a bee spots the internal nectar guides, it works hard to enter the flower. Experienced bees quickly push their way in via the small pore at the flower’s summit, but it takes a powerful insect to open this “door” and gain access. Naive, young bees (presumably) will literally bumble about the flower’s exterior, seemingly baffled as to how to gain entrance. I saw this behavior several times. But once they have figured it out, they too quickly tap the nectar at the flower’s base and in the process provide pollination services.

Readers’ wildlife photos

August 26, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today we have photos from out of Africa, all taken by Delia Randolph, who works in England and Kenya. Her notes are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

A few from Kenya where I live and work.

A handsome blue wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou):

Happy hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius):

A couple more from the Mara, near the Mara River:

Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) in foliage. Warthogs have specially-adapted protective pads that allow them to ‘kneel’ down to feed – you can see the thickened skin between the ‘hairy bits’ on the front leg. And the next picture shows them in action.

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) coming back with lunch. Hyena’s are one of the few animals that easily eat bones, horns and hooves. I was once doing some research on sheep vaccines in Kenya, and, according to the protocol,  I had to do a post mortem on any sheep that died. The herder came one day to tell me a sheep had been killed by a hyena. He looked at me funny while I got together my post mortem kit. I arrived at the scene of the crime to find a few small tufts of blood-stained wool. That was all the hyena had left of a 250 lb Merino – the quickest post mortem ever.

Lion and lioness (Panther leo) with hyena in the background. Lions and hyenas compete for territory and prey. As well as direct competition both species engage in kleptoparasitism, that is, stealing prey hunted by the other species. Who is the thief and who is the robbed varies with population number and other factors.

Resting hyena in foreground, skulking hyena in background (would be perfect to play Shakespeare’s Richard 111, even has a hunchback!). Silver backed jackal, also known as black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) in background. Jackals don’t compete directly with lions or hyenas, going after smaller prey, but will pick over kill remains.

Two silver backed jackals and vultures after someone else made a kill (not sure whether lions or hyenas, we came after the action). I am not sure of the species of the vultures