Revisiting the past to save the future by Stephen Baxter

Once there were elephants in America.

There were elephants all over the world, in fact, save for Australia and Antarctica. There were many kinds of them. Today the existing elephants are warm-climate animals, but in the past there were mammoths — hairy giants adapted to living in the cold. North America had its own unique species of mammoths, as well as other elephant types with names like mastodons and gomphotheres.

And, during the Ice Ages, there were woolly mammoths. Inhabitants of the cold tundra that circled the North Pole, they had walked into North America across the land bridge between Asia and Alaska.

Imagine visiting some time traveler’s zoo and meeting a woolly mammoth. It might remind you of an Asian (or Indian) elephant. (In fact woolly mammoths were more closely related to the Asian elephants than African elephants are to Asian.) But the mammoth is coated with a curtain of dark, orange-brown hair.

Over a fine downy underwool, its guard hairs are long, coarse and thick. Springy and transparent, they are more like lengths of fishing line than human hair. The hair on its head is just a few inches long, but it hangs down in a longer fringe under its chin and neck, and at the sides of its trunk. From its flanks and belly hangs a skirt of guard hair almost three feet long, giving the mammoth something of the look of a Tibetan yak. The mammoth keeps out the cold with its hair, and a layer of fat under its skin — thick as a human forearm.

The mammoth’s ears and tail are small, for those exposed organs would otherwise be at risk from frostbite. It has an elephant’s trunk, but with two finger-like extensions at its tip, for manipulating grass and other small objects. Its tusks are six feet long, twisting in huge spirals. The undersides of both the tusks are worn, for they are used to strip bark and dig up plants – and, in the depths of winter, as a snowplow.

Mammoths were smaller than elephants. Cows (females) grew to nine feet at the shoulder, the bulls (males) to eleven feet. The mammoth’s head is large, with a high dome on the crown. Its shoulders have a high, distinctive hump, behind which its back slopes markedly from front to rear – unlike the horizontal line of an elephant’s back.

You can trace that shoulder hump in Ice Age wall paintings, paintings by people who really did see mammoths every day.

The mammoths were so closely related to existing elephants that they surely lived like them. Mammoth communities were probably based around female clans — very tightly-knit groups of mothers and daughters, aunts and sisters, led by matriarchs. Male calves were brought up with the females until adolescence, when they left to join looser-knit bachelor herds. They would seek out females for mating.

If you were a female mammoth you could expect to spend your whole life in one small group (barring some calamity, like being hunted by people). But mammoths learned from each other — what was good to eat, how to find water under the ice — and they communicated constantly, with trumpets, rumbles, stamping, and a great deal of touching. To be a female mammoth must have been like being part of a group mind.

By about 13,000 years ago, as the last Ice Age ended, all the elephant kinds had become extinct — all save two species of elephant in Africa, and one in Asia, the elephants you will see in zoos today. All the mammoths died out.

We aren’t sure how this happened. There had been several Ice Ages, not just one; the mammoths had survived the great global warming events that ended Ice Ages before. Perhaps human hunting was responsible. We probably didn’t exterminate the mammoths deliberately. But the pressure of our hunting coupled with the fast-changing climate was maybe too much for such big, slow-breeding animals to cope with.

Today, scientists are seeking mammoth corpses frozen in the Arctic ice, in the hope of extracting DNA and perhaps cloning a mammoth. It would be wonderful to meet a woolly mammoth in a Jurassic Park of the Ice Age.

But this is a crowded planet. Right now the mammoths’ closest living relatives, the Asian elephants, are being driven to extinction (there is an international conservation effort underway**). Maybe we should concentrate on saving what we haven’t yet lost, rather than reviving the past.

** Contact the Asian Elephants in Crisis project

Copyright© 2002, HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. This article has been provided by HarperCollins and printed with their permission.

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