Courtesy Colossal
Orphaned elephants in Botswana are about to receive some help thanks to a pioneering collaboration between wildlife foundation Elephant Havens and biotech company Colossal. The collaboration will see AI used to study elephant behavior, to aid the reintroduction of orphans to the wild.
Courtesy Colossal
Elephant Havens co-founder Debra Stevens says human-wildlife conflict is the leading cause of elephants becoming orphaned -- the majority of incidents involving fires. The foundation is caring for orphans as part of a reintroduction program that will monitor their progress for over a decade.
Courtesy Colossal
The foundation is partnering with Colossal on an extensive data-gathering operation, using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze the animals' behavior and pair it with genomic data on each elephant. "We'll be able to mix the art of the elephant handlers with the science of today," argues Matt James, chief animal officer at Colossal (pictured center).
Courtesy Colossal
Colossal's Matt James alongside a calf. The AI will be fed video footage which has been interpreted by elephant handlers, so that over time it can learn about social behaviors and leadership models, for example.
Courtesy Colossal
Colossal is also sequencing the genomes of Elephant Havens' orphans to conduct a gene-trait analysis of individuals, to see how their genetic information might be expressed in their behavior.
Courtesy Colossal
The data Colossal is generating will feed into the company's plans to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid, which it intends to introduce to the Arctic tundra. Like Elephant Havens when it reintroduces orphans to the wild, Colossal will be socially engineering herds. Pictured: Ben Lamm, co-founder and CEO of Colossal, alongside fellow co-founder George Church, Ph.D.
Courtesy Colossal
An illustration of a woolly mammoth. The species became extinct some 4,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. Lamm says Colossal's hybrid will combine genetic information from mammoths with that of an Asian elephant to create an animal with the cold-temperature resilience, through hair and fat deposits.
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The woolly mammoth is not the only extinct animal Colossal intends to revive. Another is the thylacine (also known as the "Tasmanian wolf" or "Tasmanian tiger") a carnivorous marsupial that became extinct in the 1930s.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Colossal says it also has plans to bring back the dodo, a flightless bird that lived on islands in the Indian Ocean and became extinct due to humans in the 18th Century. (Pictured: a stuffed dodo at the Natural History Museum, London.)
CNN  — 

The woolly mammoth has not walked the Earth for 4,000 years. Killed off at the end of the last ice age, it’s part of a group of extinct species that continue to inspire biologists, and one that US biotech startup Colossal – the self-proclaimed “de-extinction company” – has set its sights on reviving.

Colossal’s audacious plan involves creating a genetically engineered Asian elephant-mammoth hybrid, then introducing it to the Arctic tundra. The project has received millions of dollars in backing and has been met with both curiosity and a degree of scientific skepticism.

For Colossal to succeed, it must overcome many hurdles, including crafting the animal’s genetic sequence, successfully fertilizing an egg, and growing it to term. But birth is only the beginning. How these animals will live in the wild is a question that will take a lifetime or more to answer, and Colossal is turning to other animals for help – including a group of elephants in Botswana.

The startup has entered a collaboration with Elephant Havens, a wildlife foundation based in the Okavango Delta that cares for orphaned elephants.

Founded in 2017, Elephant Havens will partner with Colossal on an extensive data-gathering operation, using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze the animals’ behavior and pair it with genomic data on each elephant. “We’ll be able to mix the art of the elephant handlers with the science of today,” argues Matt James, chief animal officer at Colossal.

The findings, the organizations hope, could provide a blueprint for releasing the elephants into the wild and mammoth hybrids to the tundra.

A new system for elephant monitoring

Courtesy Colossal
Human-wildlife conflict is the leading cause of elephant orphans in Botswana, says Elephant Havens founder Debra Stevens.

Elephant Havens co-founder Debra Stevens said, “nine times out of 10,” elephants in Botswana are orphaned due to human-wildlife conflict. Many of the foundation’s orphans were made so because of fires. “The herd will separate, and they lose their babies,” she explained. “That’s always tragic to witness, because they desperately want to find their mothers – so we try and become mothers for them.”

Reintroducing elephants to the wild is difficult. Social hierarchies are complex and introducing an orphan to a wild herd is not a good idea, says Stevens. But without a family unit, orphaned elephants have been reported to perish from grief. Even when elephants are reintroduced as a group, they don’t always revel in their independence, she adds, and have a habit of finding their way back to the place they were raised in captivity.

Elephant Havens is engaged in a long-term reintroduction project, in which orphans are “soft released” into a 1,000-acre fenced site for five years, where they gradually learn to survive without human input.

Seven elephant youths including a matriarch and a male currently live in the soft release area, while seven younger elephants are cared for in an orphanage and will be moved to the enclosure at a later date. After five years in the enclosure, Elephant Havens will reintroduce these bonded herds into the wild, and monitor their progress for a decade.

Courtesy Colossal
The Colossal Biosciences team at Elephant Havens, Africa. From left to right: Steve Metzler, Matt James, Dr. Wendy Kiso.

Colossal is looking to harness the know-how of Elephant Havens’ experts and pair it with AI modeling and genetic data to learn more about the elephants.

“We’re looking at it from the perspective of how we would work with woolly mammoths in rewilding,” explained James.

“We have to look at motherless, loose family units. We’re going to build these family units, and then they’ll be raised alongside each other to create that first generation of mammoths. It’s a very similar situation to what Debra and the team in Botswana face when they receive orphans.”

James said that stationary cameras will record video, which will be analyzed by handlers and turned into data points to teach an AI to understand elephant social behaviors – leadership models, for example.

“There are a lot of people that have studied elephant behavior, but to put it into a system like this, that has never been done before,” James said.

“The more data you put into these systems, the stronger those correlations become, the more it understands elephant behavior,” he added.

Searching for genetic knowledge

Courtesy Colossal
A rendering of a woolly mammoth. Biotech company Colossal wants to create a hybrid combining mammoth DNA with that of Asian elephants.

Ben Lamm, founder of Colossal, said AI has a role to play in animal research.

“Some of these technologies we take for granted in corporate America or in defense could be directly applied and have a meaningful impact to conservation,” he said. “These tools aren’t in the hands of the people that really need them.”

Lamm added that Colossal is also working to sequence the genomes of Elephant Havens’ orphans, which will be paired with its AI-based findings, allowing their genes to be compared with their traits as they grow up.

Stevens explained that the information could be used to understand which traits might be passed on by individual elephants.

All this research is filtering down into Colossal’s work constructing the genome of its mammoth-elephant hybrid. Lamm said the company has analyzed 54 mammoth genes, identifying those that express cold tolerance and shaggy coats, and a team is now editing 20 genes into one Asian elephant cell.

Colossal is also in the early stages of developing ovum pick up (OPU) in elephants – extracting unfertilized egg cells called oocyctes from the ovary – a key stage in eventually creating an embryo.

The company hopes that the scientific breakthroughs in its efforts to create a hybrid could ultimately be used by others in animal conservation efforts. “All of the technologies that we develop on our path to de-extinction, we want to try in the wild with partners, and give those to them for free and subsidize the implementation of them,” Lamm added.

“Hopefully in the next five to 10 years, Colossal can show a meaningful difference in elephant conservation.”

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