Mammoth Undertaker

The natural history museum's new elephant exhibit sparks a scientist's debate.

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Dr. Larry Agenbroad, a professor at Northern Arizona University who accompanied French explorer Bernard Buigues to Siberia to excavate an intact 23,000-year-old woolly mammoth, describes the experience as "kind of like being the first man on Mars." For the last 26 years, Agenbroad -- who will speak on the Siberian expedition (as seen on the Discovery Channel's Raising the Mammoth) Friday in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park -- has been the principal investigator at the Mammoth Site in South Dakota. But the skeletal remains of 52 mammoths from the Pleistocene era pale in comparison to one in the flesh. Especially when that flesh could be used to clone the animal.

Harvey Webster, director of wildlife at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, who works in the shadow of the museum's famous Johnstown mastodon skeleton, isn't sure that would be a good idea. "We don't know much about their behavior," he explains. "In cloning, you're just re-creating the flesh. You're not necessarily in a position to re-create the wealth of behaviors that might have been learned."

The thought of mammoths rampaging across the plains states is not a concern for Agenbroad. "I think that's hysteria," he says. "If we were ever successful and had a baby mammoth produced, its surrogate mother -- which would be an Asian elephant -- would teach it how to be an elephant."

Contrary to popular belief, the animal would also be about the same size. To see what it could look like, the natural history museum is exhibiting a re-created woolly mammoth as part of Elephants, which examines the evolution of the creatures -- raising the question of why anyone would want to reintroduce an animal already disposed of by nature.

"I have a slightly different perspective," Agenbroad explains. He sees the mammoth as akin to bison, once hunted to near-extinction by humans. "We didn't have animal friends' societies 11,000 years ago -- I've worked on mammoth kill sites, so we know that humans did it."

Webster says the role of humans in the animal's demise isn't proven, and points out another problem: Where do you reintroduce the mammoth? "There's a Pleistocene Park in Siberia," Agenbroad says. "They've made the international statement that they will take any cloned mammoth anyone can produce."

"From a curiosity standpoint, I'm sure it would attract a lot of attention," Webster considers. "But you really need to address the endpoint: What is the goal of doing it?"

"I've had a lot of legal correspondence to this effect," Agenbroad admits. "They say it's inhumane; it's not ethical to try and bring something back. I think that bringing back grizzly bears and wolves into an area where they've been eradicated by humans is not really any different than trying to bring back mammoths into an area where they've been eradicated by humans."

Fortunately, Siberia is a long way from Ohio.

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