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Welcome to Pleistocene Park

Sergey Zimov has a dream to take a chunk of the Siberia tundra back to the last Ice Age, to the Pleistocene era, when giant mammals roamed the earth. Zimov and his son Nikita founded Pleistocene Park twenty years ago, and since then have stocked it with bison, musk oxen, wild horses, reindeer, and other grass-eating beasts. But to really move the ecosystem back to the way it was, they need the tree-trampling talents of wooly mammoths.  

Pleistocene Park is named for the geological epoch that ended only 12,000 years ago, having begun 2.6 million years earlier. Though colloquially known as the Ice Age, the Pleistocene could easily be called the Grass Age. Even during its deepest chills, when thick, blue-veined glaciers were bearing down on the Mediterranean, huge swaths of the planet were coated in grasslands. In Beringia, the Arctic belt that stretches across Siberia, all of Alaska, and much of Canada’s Yukon, these vast plains of green and gold gave rise to a new biome, a cold-weather version of the African savanna called the Mammoth Steppe. But when the Ice Age ended, many of the grasslands vanished under mysterious circumstances, along with most of the giant species with whom we once shared this Earth.

Nikita is trying to resurface Beringia with grasslands. He wants to summon the Mammoth Steppe ecosystem, complete with its extinct creatures, back from the underworld of geological layers. The park was founded in 1996, and already it has broken out of its original fences, eating its way into the surrounding tundra scrublands and small forests. If Nikita has his way, Pleistocene Park will spread across Arctic Siberia and into North America, helping to slow the thawing of the Arctic permafrost. Were that frozen underground layer to warm too quickly, it would release some of the world’s most dangerous climate-change accelerants into the atmosphere, visiting catastrophe on human beings and millions of other species.

The possibility of cloning a mammoth Jurassic Park-style has been in the news for years, but finding viable mammoth DNA still eludes us. But there's another possibility: designing a cold weather elephant species by tweaking the genes of existent elephants. Read about this research and about the development of Pleistocene Park at the Atlantic. -via Metafilter

(Image credit: Kevin Tong)


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