2 May 2011, 13:18

Pleistocene Park: so far without mammoths

Pleistocene Park: so far without mammoths

An unparalleled scientific experiment is being carried out in the Pleistocene Park nature reserve in northern part of Russia’s Sakha Republic (Siberia). The aim of the project is to recreate the ancient grasslands that were widespread in the region during the last ice age.

An unparalleled scientific experiment is being carried out in the Pleistocene Park nature reserve in northern part of Russia’s Sakha Republic (Siberia). The aim of the project is to recreate the ancient grasslands that were widespread in the region during the last ice age.

About 10,000 years ago, the northern Yakut grasslands, also known as Mammoth-tundra, were populated by a diverse set of large and medium herbivore species, such as wooly mammoths, wild horses, reindeer, and bison. Scientists worldwide have yet to find out why this richest wild nature almost disappeared off the surface of the globe over just a few centuries. According to one of the assumptions, ancient hunters are to be blamed for killing off mammoths and other large mammals. Russian specialists tend to refer the richness of that epoch’s ecosystem to the animals’ ability to independently preserve their pasture lands, trampling down mosses and lichens, eating all grass and fertilizing the soil. During the Pleistocene epoch’s winter time, mammoth grasslands were covered with a thick layer of snow and the soil got frozen, preventing the permafrost meltdown, says Sergei Zimov, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Geography and the Pleistocene Park project author:

"The ecosystem that used to be here many years ago cooled the climate substantially. And the present-day situation - I mean climate warming and the melting of permafrost - is a separate problem which we are seriously engaged in. We came to realize that the revival of a rich ecosystem on a vast territory will considerably affect the climate and help us control the process of global warming. Scientists find hundreds of kilograms of mammoth-epoch bones on every hectare of northern Yakutia, which testifies to the bygone abundance of herbivores and a different landscape. Our objective is to find out why the situation varied so much after all," Sergei Zimov said.

The Pleistocene Park project offers a new concept of creating a wild nature ecosystem and helps boost the soil fertility potential, according to Sergei Zimov. As a matter of fact, the park is sort of a model showing how the idea actually works.

The Russian biologist has been engaged in the project for 20 years already. Sergei Zimov’s son Nikita, who is also his main assistant and follower, is the current director of the Northeast Scientific Station. The Zimovs plan an at least fivefold expansion of the 160-square-kilometer Pleistocene Park’s area, already inhabited by reindeer, moose, bears and Yakut horses. The reserve is about to become home for such mammoth-age survivors as Musk oxen brought from the Wrangel Island, as well as bison, yaks, Manchurian deer, double-humped camels and other mammal species which co-existed in Eurasia some 10,000 years ago.

All that is missing are mammoths living in the reviving grasslands, the father and son Zimovs say. However, Japanese scientist Akira Iritani is ready to resolve this problem by means of cloning the mammoth. With the genome of extinct mammoths read back in 2008, he intends to take cell nuclei from the remains of a mammoth found in Yakutia and insert them into an elephant’s egg cell. Iritani has even chosen a site for the future mammoth farm after examining the Pleistocene Park’s territory from a helicopter and making sure that the grass of its pasture lands is juicy enough and that the area has never been inhabited by people.

Who knows, maybe this idea is really implementable, especially given the constant surprises of our planet’s scientific progress. And maybe one day, northern Russia will once again see mighty mammoths strolling along its grasslands, which will replace present-day mosses and lichens.

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