Matthew Wooller kneels in the mammoth tusk collection at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in 2021. Wooller is leading the museum’s Adopt a Mammoth program, which will date and identify specimens at the museum. (Courtesy Photo / JR Ancheta w/UAF)

Matthew Wooller kneels in the mammoth tusk collection at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in 2021. Wooller is leading the museum’s Adopt a Mammoth program, which will date and identify specimens at the museum. (Courtesy Photo / JR Ancheta w/UAF)

UAF partners with Alaska students for a mammoth of a project

“De-extinction” company adopts fossils for Alaska school districts.

If woolly mammoths are to ever return to the Arctic, students across Alaska may have had something to do with it.

University of Alaska Fairbanks professor and mammoth researcher Dr. Matthew Wooller along with Colossal Biosciences have a collaborative project aimed at providing an educational tool for students as well as cataloging a large collection of mammoth fossils.

“I just think it’s super exciting to try and track down some of the latest surviving mammoths in the state of Alaska,” Wooller said. “There’s really kind of cutting-edge science that has emerged in basically the last year that suggests there may have been mammoths from within the last 10,000 years, which is pretty recent actually.”

Colossal Biosciences,which bills itself as the breakthrough genetic engineering and de-extinction company, has partnered with Wooller and UAF to help establish the Mammoth in the Classroom initiative as part of the Adopt a Mammoth program. Wooller is a director at UAF’s Alaska Stable Isotope Facility as well as a Scientific Advisory Board member for Colossal. and The collaborative project is preparing to radiocarbon date approximately 1,500 mammoth teeth, tusks and bones, in the University of Alaska Museum of the North’s collection. With Colossal’s involvement and funding, the newly launched Mammoth in the Classroom initiative will kick start by donating the initial 55 mammoth fossils so that all school districts within the state of Alaska can be a part of the scientific project.

Karen Spaleta UAF loading a segment of mammoth tusk for analysis at the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility. (Courtesy Photo / Matthew Wooller)

Karen Spaleta UAF loading a segment of mammoth tusk for analysis at the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility. (Courtesy Photo / Matthew Wooller)

“What we do is we connect the schools with the fossil on a remote basis,” Wooller said. “We get in touch with them and we inform them that they’ve adopted a mammoth fossil and we then send them a link to the database that has all of the specimens photographs, and in the database it says where they’re from so they can check out the location where it was found, when it was found and who found it.”

Adoption will mean the school districts will have a chance to name their fossil and will have the results from the radiocarbon and ancient DNA testing shared with them. Samples from the fossils will be taken by Wooller and sent to a lab in Sweden, led by another Colossal Scientific Advisory Board member, Love Dalén, Professor of evolutionary genomics at the Stockholm University in Sweden, who will offer free DNA analysis for each adopted specimen to determine its sex and other genetic characteristics. Colossal will further collaborate with Dalén and team to do comparative genomics on all the specimens from the study.

Professor Matthew Wooller working with students at STEM class at Randy Smith Middle School in Fairbanks as part of UAF’s Mammoth in the Classroom project. (Courtesy Photo / Matthew Wooller)

Professor Matthew Wooller working with students at STEM class at Randy Smith Middle School in Fairbanks as part of UAF’s Mammoth in the Classroom project. (Courtesy Photo / Matthew Wooller)

Afterward, each school district’s fossil gets entered into a competition to see who can date the youngest mammoth fossil because that’s really at the heart of the Adopt a Mammoth project, trying to find the youngest geologically aged mammoth fossil in all of Alaska, Wooller said. What students will learn through the program largely depends on the K-12 grade level, but has the potential of teaching everything from chemistry, DNA, molecular biology, geology and history, according to Wooller.

“K-8 I know are mostly learning about timelines, so this is a very concrete way of talking about a timeline and it also relates to Alaska history, as well,” Wooller said. “There was a patch of time in Alaska when some of the earliest people in Alaska overlapped with mammoth’s on the landscape, so that sort of brings in Alaska history and ancient geology. Plus it all centers around a very iconic and charismatic Alaskan animal.”

Wooller said fossils will be assigned to entire districts, making it available to any school and any classroom that wants to participate. Colossal has adopted every district throughout all of Alaska and they’ll be reaching out shortly after the holiday to let those districts know that they’ve adopted a mammoth. The larger goal is to have every public school in Alaska adopting a fossil, according to Wooller.

“We have like 1,500-plus fossils that are currently undated from mammoths in the museum, so a big part of the goal of the project is to get them all radiocarbon dated and all sequenced, which would be, from a science perspective, would be super cool.”

Students at STEM class at Randy Smith Middle School in Fairbanks having hands on education as part of UAF’s Mammoth in the Classroom project. (Courtesy Photo / Matthew Wooller)

Students at STEM class at Randy Smith Middle School in Fairbanks having hands on education as part of UAF’s Mammoth in the Classroom project. (Courtesy Photo / Matthew Wooller)

Wooller said that the Adopt a Mammoth project, which oversees the Mammoth in the Classroom effort, will kick off the next school semester nicely in terms of timing and aims at being completed within a couple of years. Wooller further said his involvement in the Adopt a Mammoth project was largely just happenstance and good fortune.

“We at UAF had kicked off the Adopt a Mammoth project earlier this fall, and then it just happened to be that the company Colossal were coming up to Anchorage and to Fairbanks to talk about their project and they had gotten in touch with me because I do work on mammoths anyway. We connected and discussed the Adopt a Mammoth project and started thinking of ways that Colossal and the Adopt a Mammoth project could help each other.”

Colossal CEO Ben Lamm said by email that there are primarily three reasons the company has prioritized the woolly mammoth for de-extinction. The first reason, Lamm said, is to save elephants by making them adaptable to a colder environment where they can survive away from urban areas prone to human-animal encroachment. Secondly, it’s to create a de-extinction toolkit that not only can be used to bring back certain keystone species but also be applied to conservation and species preservation of any endangered animal. Lastly, Lamm said, Colossal’s intention is to help restore a once thriving Arctic grassland.

Additionally, Lamm said that Colossal’s goal with all species they intend to de-extinct is to carefully and thoughtfully restore animals back into their natural habitat in collaboration with local governments, Indigenous people, private landowners, ecologists and conservation partners. Lamm said that in the case of the mammoth, their natural habitat is the Arctic Circle area as well as various other locations around Alaska, Siberia and Canada. According to Lamm, the mammoth was a keystone species in the Arctic tundra and its disappearance from the region left an ecological void that has yet to be filled.

“De-extincting the mammoth gives us the ability to rewild this critical species into a degrading ecosystem to combat the effects of climate change,” Lamm said. “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. We believe our work will help restore this degraded ecosystem to a richer one, similar to the one that existed as recently as 10,000 years ago.”

• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at jonson.kuhn@juneauempire.com.

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