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Saturday, 13 June 2015

Extinction Wildlife Sanctuary: Mammoths

I've realized that I've accidentally left something vague. This story sets place in an alternate reality where despite the recession of the 1970s the Space Race continued. Thanks to this technology is slightly more advanced than in our timeline (hence the quick coding of the genomes). Also the Pleistocene Park shown later is an actual idea although currently we are still far from cloning a mammoth (it's only because of the slightly more advanced technology are they able to 'clone' one in this story). 

Seth Matthews of the Senshijidaino Wildlife Sanctuary stared intently at the small herd in front of him. If his hidden hide had not been perfectly designed to blend in with a forest of primeval dark green ferns the animals most likely would have darted away already. The dark green bald heads of the Mussaurus could barely be seen among the dew covered ferns as the lookouts scanned their domain with unceasing paranoia. The lookouts formed a ring around those who were browsing from the cycads where their only movements were the quick darts of their pointed heads looking for danger. From what he had found out so far Mussaurus didn’t have any concrete hierarchy for the herd as something like an elephant would have. It was more of a conglomeration born out of safety in numbers with the smaller ones following the larger ones only to protect themselves. Every paleontologist would have given their right arm to be where he was. With fossils you could only make theories on behavior. At Senshijidaino those theories could finally have weight behind them.

His stomach then knotted as if it was a python constricting its prey. He had been informed that the sanctuary’s animal behaviorist James Bronson was originally against bringing the animals back from extinction for a very good reason: behavior. Much of an animal’s behavior is cognitive but just as much is learnt such as social interaction. James said it was unethical bringing animals back from extinction when they had no others around to teach them and bridge the gaps in their behavior. It had hit him them that maybe it was actually unethical. Yes they had been bringing back these animals not for profit and with a few to even reintroduce them to the wild, (Sato seemingly had a plan to release wild dinosaurs on another lifeless island) ,which he assumed was ethical but was it right doing that if they were missing half their behavior? Then the problem was answered. Recently they had bred Golden Lion Tamarins with the premise to use a series of visual prompts to fill in the gaps for their behavior. However the Tamarins turned out to seemingly exhibit the normal behaviour for their species! Vadim, the sanctuary’s Genome Synthesizer/Hatchery Technician, found that memories of behavior (although not memories of phobias, likes and general past experiences) from the animals used to synthesize the genome had already been bred into the new animals. Although learnt behavior for the species was no longer an issue other ethical issues that might plague the sanctuary were always at the back of his mind.

“Seth please could you come with me?” a voice said behind him. Tayatami Nobuko (the sanctuary’s manager) was standing sternly behind him holding what had been joked as her trademark black tablet. He nodded and followed her out of the hide.

“I want to make sure that all things are in order before we bring the herd back,” she said with so much authority that she sounded eerily similar to an old teacher of his. Nobuko had two personalities; her quiet but carefree ‘out of work’ personality and her stern, formal ‘work’ personality. Not even her father could make her shift from her stern working personality; albeit a good thing as otherwise ‘out of work’ Nobuko would have quickly caved in and let him breed a Tyrannosaurus immediately.

The bright sunlight almost blinded him. The hide was almost as dark as a moonless night so the fiery glow of the Pacific sun did not agree with his eyes. Outside the Triassic Dome was an electric jeep waiting which Nobuko quickly climbed into. The Ice Age Dome was on the other side of the island so it would otherwise be a long walk without it. The jeep engine whirred silently as the jeep set off down a dirt road sending mist like wisps of dirt as the tyres gently thundered over road. Despite how excited the rest of the staff was about the arrival of woolly mammoths Nobuko’s face did not express it. He definitely did know that she was excited from the previous night when Vadim had announced that the mammoth genome had been fully traced.

“I think we might be upsetting Sergey Zimov a bit,” he joked. For about eighteen years the Russian researcher had been trying to create Pleistocene Park on the Kolyma River. He had succeeded in introducing multiple animals that once lived there such as muskox but when it was announced that a mammoth could possibly be bred if the genome had been traced his dream would be truly complete. However red tape and court battles had so far prevented him from having an elephant impregnated via in-vitro fertilization to produce a mammoth. Senshijidaino producing a herd of mammoths quite possibly years before he even manages to get legal permission to breed a mammoth would not best please him.

Nobuko nodded in agreement. As they passed the headquarters shadows cast by vibrant tropical trees shielded them from the relentless sun. Occasionally he saw a flash of fiery golden fur scurry through the branches. The omnipotent black meshing of the Haast’s Eagle aviary crept out of the trees like a ruined city reminding him that not all the sanctuary’s animals were as timid as the Mussaurus. The trees soon thinned and vanished as quickly as they had appeared as the jeep rocked over hard lifeless rock. It was a hard task introducing plants to win the war against the barren land that comprised the sanctuary. There was a benefit as it allowed them to be creative in making the animal’s enclosures without disturbing natural habitats but at the same time it looked foreboding and desolate. He was sure that if a nuclear bomb had been detonated on the islands the same effect could easily have been achieved.

The jeep’s almost silent engine shut off just in front of a giant biodome 15km2 in size. Giant hexagonal inflated ethylenetetrafluoroethylenecopolymer (ETFE) cells supported by rigid steel frames sealed in the cold for the behemoths of the Ice Age. At the entrance Nobuko led him down a pathway overlooking a small ditch which faced a sweeping steppe which stretched as far as the eye could see like a grassy ocean. Intermingled in the grass were pleasant splashes of purple, yellow and red of flowering plants that had taken root in the dome. He was glad that it was summer. Already he was shivering and in the winter it was supposed the biodome’s atmosphere generators was to cake the land with snow. Nobuko started heading up a wooden walkway which he quickly set off after her. It stretched deep into the steppe giving a perfect aerial view of the green-purple plain. Directly below a shining clear lake which glistened in the sun dominated the land with conifers periodically dotted around the water. Members of the extremely rare European Bison herd bred with the intension to release into the wild were happily drinking from the bright water.

“Is this a suitable area for mammoths?” Nobuko asked.

“It’s perfect. Plenty of saplings, grass and herbaceous plants for them to eat. One of the reasons for their extinction was due to the steppe being replaced by forests. Unlike modern day elephants their diet largely consisted of grasses. Nice large lake and mud to clear mosquitoes. Cold. We’re ready for a mammoth.”

Satisfied Nobuko gave a small smile and they headed down the walkway again. The jeep darted off towards the HQ where the first woolly mammoths in millennia would be bred. The extinction of the mammoth had been staggered; 10,000 years ago they went extinct on the mainland, 6,000 years ago an island population went extinct off of Alaska and 4,000 years ago all mammoths had vanished. In an ironic twist of fate they would be brought back in a staggered way. The matriarch would be first, then the rest of the herd would follow and finally a male.

When they entered the Synthesizer/Hatchery room a cold crept along him like vines against a tree. Sato was bustling about asking whether they should make the room colder for the mammoth. Kioni the Head Keeper was looking carefully an animatronic head of a mammoth created by the engineers which currently was lodged in a transport container. It was making feeble movements and trumpets of an excited elephant to hopefully convince the mammoths that it was one of their own.

“Hiya Seth,” James said. He had cheered considerably up after he had found out that the mammoths would be able to have the correct social behavior. He cheered up even more after he had found out that Vadim could make the females related by tinkering with the DNA code to make them cousins. “I’m so glad that Vadim can make ‘em all cousins. Elephants are jus’ like us; they need their family. I love me mammy and me brother and me sister are me bes’ friends. Elephants are the same. In zoos they’re all unrelated and it drains their health. They don’ thrive. They need to be wi’ family.”

He hushed up when the klaxon flared. The matriarch was about to arrive. Kioni called out to her keepers to get out of the walkway as quickly as possible; as the mammoth would be inheriting some behavior from another mammoth there was a possibility that it could remember that humans hunted elephants… Behind the trees that led to the hatchery there was a deep trumpet of an elephant. He could have cried. She was parted the trees like the Red Sea as she gently walked across the metal walkway. She looked like a normal elephant but with long coarse brown hair covering the entire body and a fatty hump on the shoulder. Compared to an African Elephant she had tiny ears and tail but had two gleaming white curved tusks to compensate for them. She raised her furry snake like trunk and trumpeted in greeting to her new world.

“She’s amazing,” he heard someone whisper. The matriarch (who was named Kseniya by Nobuko) instantly saw the animatronic mammoth head and waggled her tiny black ears in delight. Kioni started using a remote to make the head feebly move and emit the excited cries of an elephant. The clunky head moved the fake trunk horizontal to the floor in Kseniya’s direction. In response she gave a similar trumpet and held out her trunk. Flapping her ears she darted towards the animatronic and wrapped her trunk around that of the animatronic.

“She’s greeting it as a friend,” James whispered excitedly “She still has her species behavior!”
Kioni gestured to the keepers who quietly closed the back of the container. The silent electric engine of the HGV whirred into life like a strange metallic cat and set off. It moved into the direction of the Ice Age Dome and they instantly followed. Half an hour later, with much coaxing, Kseniya backed out of the container with her eventually realizing that the animatronic was not real. At the request of James they left the container open for her.

“Elephants like being with others of their kind,” he explained “Kermit the mammoth there might not be real but it reminds her of someone friendly. Even in the wild elephants have been known to stay by dead elephants who they never knew as sort of mourning. Keeping the puppet will help her settle.”
High above the noble behemoth he could still hear her soft trumpets as she padded in and out of the container to be with the puppet. It was strange how much they were like us. For Kseniya having the animatronic must be like a human keeping a teddy bear. She happily used her maneuverable trunk around the stem of a bright sunflower and tore it from the earth. At one part she even used her curved white tusks to dig up a root lodged in the earth.

“Why did you order that?” he heard Nobuko ask Kioni. A truck had just driven right in the middle of the paddock and had discarded tonnes upon tonnes of elephant feces. It looked like some sort of dirty protest.

“She’s an elephant,” Kioni replied nonchalantly “When I was working at the Tsavo Reserve I saw baby elephants eating the feces of the adults. Elephants have bacteria in the gut to break down tough vegetation more easily but when they’re born they don’t have the bacteria. The babies eat feces to get those bacteria. Kseniya’s just been bred so she needs that bacteria.”

He had to laugh at the look on Nobuko’s face at that moment. It was a mixture of revulsion and childlike laughter. A fully grown mammoth matriarch eating feces did have that effect on you.
The next day Kioni had deemed it the opportune moment to finally remove the transport container. Kseniya dragged her trunk against the soft grass in dejection following this. Such an intelligent and sociable animal by herself in an alien time losing a thin slither of familiarity was devastating. It was hard to not feel some form of empathy for her as she gave rumbles from her deep stomach. The mammoth started to pace around the edge of the crystal clear lake gently rubbing her elegant tusks through the silt. In an hour and a half there was a rumble like a devastating volcanic eruption. Seth looked down upon the sea of grass to see that this eruption was not of the earth but rather from anonymous voices in transport containers. These containers were much larger than the one used to transport Kseniya but each was emitting a cacophony of trumpets and growls. They opened revealing two mammoths each. Kseniya gave a trumpet of delight as she was greeted by ten separate mammoths. They lifted up their trunks in what at first appeared a trumpet of greeting in response. However they were as silent as the night; no sound was heard coming from them. Kseniya though went to the nearest and wrapped her trunk around her bright ivory.

“They’re communicating on a low frequency. By the looks of it they’ve accepted her as matriarch,” Kioni said happily. He had forgotten that elephants communicated mostly through low frequency grumbles. Their wide feet had adapted to pick up these grumbles like some form of biological radio station.

Kseniya immediately snapped out of her torpor and was swinging her trunk with ecstasy. She led her new herd towards the lake (scattering the shaggy furred bison away from that side of the lake) before wading in to the mud. The mammoths took it in turn to playfully spray mud at each other; the mud staining their light and dark brown fur an even darker shade. It had a joint purpose of play and to rid themselves of pesky flies.

“I just hope the male is as easy going,” Kioni moaned. He nodded in agreement. Male elephants were often more aggressive than females.
In three more hours the first male mammoth in 4,000 years had arrived in the Ice Age Dome. He was larger than the females being slightly over three meters tall with much curlier ivory tusks. His great size made him look very formidable. A nearby bison merely took one look at the behemoth before running off to join his companions.

“We’ve called him Arkhip,” Kioni told him “He’s not in musth but he’s still more aggressive than the females. He put a massive dint in the container.”

As the transport HGV was slowly moving out of the paddock he could see a massive dint as if a giant had punched the side of it. Kseniya gave a roar with her trunk flailing in anger at him. Her herd members joined her making equally aggressive roars at Arkhip. He shook his head and slowly walked away shaking his course head.

“Well he’s been put in his place!” Kioni laughed.

Senshijidaino had successfully bred one of the most famous extinct animals. Surely Sato’s dream of making extinction extinct would soon come to pass. 

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