Colossal Biosciences Bringing the Mammoth Back to the Arctic, Starting in the Classroom

Picture a period over 20,000 years ago, when ice covered much of the Earth and iconic species like the dire wolf and saber-toothed tiger roamed North America. While many have long forgotten about these creatures of the past, the de-extinction company Colossal Biosciences is hard at work rewilding lost species like the Tasmanian tiger and woolly mammoth. Although Colossal isn’t expecting its first mammoth calf until 2028, the company is enlisting the help of local classrooms to provide a deeper understanding of the species.

As an Arctic keystone species, the woolly mammoth is a valued piece of Alaskan history, and a deeper understanding of the animal serves as the perfect introduction for lessons in conservation and ecology. In collaboration with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Adopt a Mammoth program — which offers the opportunity to adopt, name, and radiocarbon-date the approximately 1,500 woolly mammoth fossils housed at the university’s Museum of the North — Colossal has provided crucial funding to help establish the Mammoth in the Classroom initiative.

“This initiative could not be more core to Colossal’s mission: combining cutting-edge de-extinction research with children’s education,” said Ben Lamm, the co-founder and CEO of Colossal Biosciences. “The project is allowing us to contribute to the growth and understanding of mammoth research more broadly. Not nearly enough research has been completed on American woolly mammoths. This is not only a great benefit for our youth, but for the entire science community.”

Led by UAF professor and Colossal scientific advisory board member Matthew Wooller, the Mammoth in the Classroom program offers every school district throughout Alaska the opportunity to take part in the radiocarbon-dating of mammoths, providing lessons on the history of Alaska while offering scientists insights into the behaviors, migration patterns, and extinction of woolly mammoths in America. In addition to naming their fossil and learning the details of its discovery — such as where it was found — students are afforded hands-on experiences with these ancient creatures, drilling their own samples for the radiocarbon-dating process.

These samples will then be sent for lab testing in Sweden, where Colossal Biosciences scientific advisory board member and Stockholm University professor Love Dalén will provide free genomic sequencing of the specimen to determine genetic characteristics such as sex. Colossal will then collaborate with Dalén’s lab to perform a comparative analysis of all specimens, focused on the genetic relatedness and evolutionary history of North American mammoths. 

“The radiocarbon-dating of all these mammoth remains is providing us a fantastic opportunity to characterize the evolution of genetic diversity in North American woolly mammoths and will ultimately provide a better picture of which genes were unique for this iconic species,” said Dalén.

Once samples are dated, each school is entered into a contest to determine the youngest dated fossil in hopes of extending the extinction date for mammoths in North America and providing evidence that humans and mammoths coexisted on the continent for centuries longer than current estimates. The winner will be given a trophy and have their photo displayed in the Museum of the North alongside their adopted fossil.

A Mammoth Means for Fostering Conservation

At a time when the extinction rate is as much as 10,000 times the natural background rate, fostering positive attitudes around conservation is crucial to safeguarding biodiversity — and it starts with our youth. As the future stewards of environmentalism, it’s fundamental to teach children, from a young age, about the importance of nature and pressing sustainability concerns like extinction.

In providing hands-on experience with mammoth fossils, students can gain a deeper understanding of the positive impact of the species and the detrimental effects of its loss. Additionally, by getting students acquainted with mammoths, they’re preparing for a potential future as local ambassadors to the rewilded species. As a keystone species, reintroducing the mammoth to the Arctic can positively impact everything from the local landscape to the global climate. 

“De-extincting the mammoth gives us the ability to rewild this critical species into a degrading ecosystem to combat the effects of climate change,” said Colossal Biosciences’ Lamm. “Various scientific groups have completed extensive climate research and modeling to understand the effects of rewilding megafauna to the Arctic and tundra ecosystems and believe that the reintroduction of woolly mammoths to the Arctic would be helpful to carbon sequestering and methane suppression in the rapidly thawing permafrost.

By radiocarbon-dating these creatures, mammoths can come alive in the imaginations of students and scientists alike as they gain enhanced insight into the lives of these ancient behemoths. In 2021, Wooller and his team at UAF used radiometric dating of various elemental isotopes to track the life history of a 17,100-year-old male mammoth they named Kik. 

In comparing the values of the element strontium in Kik’s tusk to that in the Alaskan environment at the time, Wooller was able to trace the mammoth’s movement for thousands of miles, from its birth in the Alaskan interior to its death from starvation 28 years later in the Kikiakrorak River valley.

Linking the mammoth to its local landscape reinforces the importance of conservation by exemplifying the fragility of species, because if one of the largest animals to ever roam North America can go extinct — with many linking the extinction to humans — who’s to say that today’s most iconic species are safe from the same fate?

The Colossal Progress of Mammoths in the Classroom

While it started in December 2022, the Mammoth in the Classroom initiative has already reached its initial research and adoption goal of donating 55 fossils to school districts around Alaska. Of the 55 adopted fossils, 25 have currently been radiocarbon-dated, representing major progress for UAF, as only 10% of its 1,500 fossils had been dated prior to the initiative. 

Colossal Biosciences continues to use data generated by this project to inform its extensive mammoth de-extinction work, including Arctic rewilding. The company is already making incredible advances in the development of viable reproductive technology and a mammoth-elephant hybrid cell line to ensure a viable woolly mammoth calf by 2028. As climate change continues to put more and more species at risk of extinction, companies like Colossal continue to exemplify the importance of using science and technology to protect biodiversity and promote a philosophy of conservation.