WoollyNPR coverage of Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History's Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich, George Church, and Stewart Brand. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
The best-selling author of The Accidental Billionaires traces the pioneering work of a group of young scientists under the guidance of brilliant geneticist George Church, who sequenced the DNA of a frozen woolly mammoth harvested from the Arctic circle to resurrect the extinct species as part of a larger effort to slow the advances of global warming.
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Three thousand years ago
An eighty-mile-wide swath of volcanic rock, gravel, and permafrost jutting out from the Arctic Ocean, ninety miles off the coast of Siberia, windswept and forbidding. Gray on gray on gray, a forgotten stretch of beach covered in a thick mist, the air heavy with the spray from waves crashing through the loose ice beyond the breakers.
A little after 5:00 a.m., the calf opens his eyes.
Even though his mother is only a few yards away, splayed out against a makeshift nest of dry reeds that she has gathered from the underbrush deeper toward the center of the island, the calf feels strangely alone. The rest of his herd—twenty-five strong, arranged along a matriarchal line that stretches back through three generations—has already begun a short pilgrimage down the coast. Being separated from the bulk of the herd feels unnatural. A mild illness has briefly kept his mother from engaging in the routines of survival on the island, so she’s stayed behind as the herd has set out to search for more sources of drinkable water and grazing. At less than a year old, the calf has remained with his mother, his familial bonds and youthful needs overcoming his developing social instincts. But neither nature nor nurture makes sitting around waiting for her to get back to her full energy any easier.
The calf pushes himself to his feet, the thick muscles in his enormous legs trembling with the effort. His size already makes rising from the ground a bit of an ordeal. He weighed over two hundred pounds at birth and even then stood over three feet tall. Now, though he is far from fully grown, he weighs well over a thousand pounds.
He shakes his head back and forth, shedding reeds and bits of snow and ice that gathered over him as he slept. His mother is still lying on her left side against the ground in front of him, her huge body rising and falling as each breath sends clouds of condensation through the frozen air. As big as the calf is, his mother is a veritable mountain, five, maybe six tons, and more than twice his height. It is no wonder that his kind often naps standing up. When they do sleep flat against the ground, it is usually for periods of no more than four to five hours.
The calf watches his mother for a few minutes, then kicks the last bits of ice off his legs and starts forward down a gentle, gravelly slope that leads toward the beach.
Each heavy step sends tremors up and down his body, as his huge feet compress and churn the frozen ground. The wind howls around him, pushing his tiny, round ears flat against the sides of his head, but he continues forward, his eyes searching the turned permafrost beneath him for bits of grass, moss, roots. As he nears the bottom of the slope, he starts to feel the spray from the waves that crash against the large volcanic rocks making up much of the coast; the water feels good against his body, the glistening, bluish drops beading against the long strands of thick red hair that cover most of his hide.
Despite the wind, the icy water, the cold, the calf is not uncomfortable. Though it is a harsh environment, he and his herd are uniquely suited for it; in fact, for thousands of years, Wrangel Island has enabled the huge animals to survive and thrive.
Even now, his is one of perhaps two dozen herds on the island. At one time, the super-herd numbered close to a thousand individuals, though in recent years it has dwindled to half that.
Though the interrelated herds have always lived in proximity to various predators, it wasn’t claws and teeth that cut down the calf’s cousins, aunts, and uncles in recent years. The thinning of his kind was part of a natural process of adaptation. The world around him has changed, and his species has adjusted; smaller in number, leaner, but functioning. In this forgotten corner of the world, they have learned, survived.
In fact, though the calf couldn’t possibly know, the isolated, icy nature of his island home is the only reason the herd still exists at all. A twist of fate, an accident of geography, a turn of weather: Six thousand years earlier, as the world had first begun to warm, the water surrounding Wrangel had risen—fifty feet or more—and cut off the island from the mainland. The calf’s ancestors, who had crossed over one herd at a time along an ice bridge during the colder months of the year, had found themselves trapped. Lost in time.
While the calf’s super-herd adapted to its isolation on Wrangel, the rest of their species had died off around the world, over four thousand years ago. The five hundred or so individuals left on the island are all that remain. Split into familial units, close-knit, living in a symbiotic relationship with the island itself, they have lived four thousand years beyond their kind’s extinction.
The calf finally reaches the bottom of the slope and is now less than a dozen yards from the water itself. The spray is even more palpable now, the frozen droplets pelting his face and hide like hail. It is time to head back up the slope toward his mother. Perhaps she is awake now and well enough to finally rejoin the herd, farther down the coast. He starts to shift his heavy body in the opposite direction, when something out on the water catches his attention.
Cutting through the waves, slicing past the jagged chunks of ice and over the breaking foam—something the cub has never seen before. He stands frozen in place, staring at the long, cylindrical object, which his mind had no capacity to understand.
Like a hollowed-out tree trunk, the object lies horizontal, moving forward on the ocean’s surface toward the beach—right in his direction.
The calf takes a step back, then freezes again. Above the edges of the long object, he can now make out creatures, five or six of them, huddled together against the water’s spray. They are small and pale, covered in odd hides that aren’t hairy. And they are pointing at him.
He watches as one of the creatures rises and lifts a thin wooden shaft tipped in razor-sharp bone high into the air. It is twice as long as the creature itself.
The calf stares, too stunned to move. He does not know what these strange creatures are, or why they are heading to his beach. He cannot know that they have come to finish what the millennia of a warming world have not.
The calf cannot know that he, his mother, his herd, are the last of his kind.