There's a lot of buzz in the news about de-extinction. With the growing interest in technologies and research, that could possibly bring animals and plants back from being, well, extinct. One of the candidates high on that list is the woolly mammoth. They're the closest relatives to our living Asian elephants today, and only widely disappeared about 10,000 years ago. With some isolated populations hanging on until about 4,700 years ago. That may seem like a long time, but at that period in the not-so-distant past, glass was being invented and the great pyramids of Giza were being built.
So, really, it's a blip in the scheme of things. Since woolly mammoth's genetic information has been so well preserved in the permafrost, where recent specimens have been discovered, scientists have been able to sequence their genomes and now different groups are trying to figure out a way to insert mammoth genes into living elephant cells and maybe, in a way, bring them back. But my question is, why mammoths? Why not, say, mastodons? No, not the heavy metal group, the late miocene megafauna. Modern day elephants, mammoths and mastodons are all in the order proboscidea, along with other exinct tusked creatures, like palaeomastodons and gomphotheres.
From the outside, mammoths and mastodons may look pretty similar, but they've been different for a very long time. About 25 million years. Mastodons were on Earth long before the mammoths, who showed up a little late to the Pleistocene party about 20 million years later. So you couldn't hope to have good luck splicing mastodon DNA into the Asian elephant genome. That's like putting human cells into a gibbon. It wouldn't work because the two are too genetically different. In addition to genetic differences between mammoths and mastodons, they're also morphologically different. This is most obviously seen in their teeth. Mammoths have large, flat, grinding surfaces on top of their molars, whereas mastodons have giant, mountain-like cusps. These cusps even inspired their scientific name, from the Greek word "masto" for "breast" and "odon" for "tooth." Literally breast tooth.