Decentring the Woolly Mammoth: Cyborg Celebrity and Bacterial Constellations

Charismatic megafauna have long been the muse of scientists pursuing de-extinction, but what of the complex webs of microscopic relations that get forgotten – or reincarnated – along the way?

Photo by Michael Schiffer on Unsplash.

Mud-sludge terra slimed and congealed over the foot of a baby woolly mammoth, eventually seeping into the calf’s mouth, throat, lungs. The mud-waters are flowing worlds for bacteria-kind and other shadowy flotsams. And as times unravel, more bacteria bloom into existence, their juicy phlegm melts the flesh, creating lactic acid barriers which essentially pickle the calf.1

About 42,000 years after, in 2007, this baby was found frozen on a muddy-water bank in the Yuribey River. A Sydney Morning Herald article writes of how she had slipped and drowned in mud as her mother did not make it in time to save her. The calf’s time had been cut short and deprived of the loving protection of her kin. Perhaps this is why the found calf was named Lyuba (Russian: love), and why she was spotlighted in the Australian Museum surrounded by her herd. I also see in Lyuba, Peaches, from the 2009 Disney film Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, who was a fuzzy mammoth baby. Animation and stories brought her to life as she wriggled and squeaked cheerfully in the warm embrace of her parents’ trunks. The stories of cute Peaches and Lyuba can impress onto me—I can be touched and moved.2

Stories can generate e(motion), they can affect and move people. Indeed, ancient DNA specialist Hendrik Poinar and philosopher Alphonso Lingis project that the de-extinction3 or the resurrection of “celebrity animals”, such as the woolly mammoth, will bring about public excitement for climate action. Resurrection researchers plan to edit the genes of baby Lyuba into the genomes of Asian Elephants to construct an “elephant cousin” of the ancient mammoth. The resurrected “woolly mammoth” is thus not the actual mammoth from the Ice Age, but a Lyuba-Asian Elephant cyborg with a holographic-patina that projects an image of the long-gone animal. Yet, these scholars project that these narratives and images can emancipate the spectator, expanding the possibilities of what can and should be seen, thought, felt—they may have fiery potentials for political and climate action.4

However, people have long debated whether de-extinction is even a concept worth pursuing. A Yale discussion essentially summarises the popular debate. One side argues that we must de-extinct and protect “creatures that have important ecological roles, or that people love”, or icons as they can foster ecological protection. I lean towards the counterpoint that “it would take resources away from saving endangered species and their habitats”, it would, “divert us from the critical work needed to protect the planet”. The resurrection may also just be science for the sake of progress, spectacle, nation-building, for the story/image, or profit. However, regardless of the hidden ideologies and spectacles in this project, one of the best ways to move forward, in the words of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, is to project our own stories and concepts—the contours of constellations of events yet to come.5

The story of the celebrity woolly mammoth calf is weaved with the flesh of a baby mammoth with a patina of love, slimed with bacteria acid-slime, and is then entangled within the web of sciences/stories/images. These constellations of intra-actions, or relations of agency, can help open new ways of seeing and new futures.6 Recalling the flowing figure of the mud-sludge-worlds and bacteria-beings I want to expand the horizons of what counts, and what matters.

As baby Lyuba thawed, researchers cut the first incision into her body—they noticed a distinct sour smell, of meat stored underwater. The mud-sludge worlds are aquatic settings taken over by lactic acid-producing bacteria which embalmed Lyuba. As these bacteria bubbled and fermented with the times, they produced lactic acid and carbon dioxide, which increased the acidity of the meat mass and intensified its long-term preservation.Bacteria-beings are important—they spit acid phlegm so that scientists could even consider the potential to resurrect the woolly mammoth.

But also, they are our symbiotic gut-flora kith who keep us healthy and living.8 Indeed, Faecalibacteriuim and Coprococcus also matter. Recent research has found that people who have depression have a lower relative abundance of Faecalibacteriuim and lower levels of Coprococcus.9 One of the researchers has said that gut microbes can affect and ask our nervous systems to generate neurotransmitters needed for good mental health. But they also note how it is possible that our mental health affects bacteria. Bacteria affect us, we affect them, we live because they live, they are living because we are living. Learning of how we rely on so many other different organisms, we should realise that the long-gone woolly mammoth has no hierarchy or greater importance unless constructed as such.

And so, as I impress onto and interact with humans and my friends, I affect them with bacteria-dew drops of my own. Bacteria-kith swirl and flower through ecosystems and worlds—these microbial worlds exchange in conversations and connections, intermingling and sharing stories of their own. Bacteria matter, they are modes of connections. All bodies, matter, and bacteria march forward through the multiple unfurling political potentials of future time-scapes. Bacteria-kith remind me that I am right there, connected to you, mud, earthworms, cow, Country, Gaia, flowers—they remind me that I am in a dynamic ecosystem, and that we are assemblages of many that matter. These constellations of shimmering bacteria-blossoms, which connect more-than-humans and non-humans, cannot be eclipsed by a sluggish revival of a “celebrity animal” that supposedly promises to activate climate action. Many of our bacteria-adorned kin are becoming extinct at this instance with repercussions that ripple out like world-destroying tsunamis. Emancipation and affective intensities are not limited to extinct celebrity animals—we can move forward in the thick present with any animal-plant-being-kin and forge our own futures together.

1. Rebecca E. Hirsch, De-Extinction: The Science of Bringing Lost Species Back to Life, (Twenty-First Century Books TM, 2017).
2. For more on cute aesthetics and how it renders others as less read, Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (2005).
3. De-extinction requires the resonances of synthetic biology, great funding, time and progress, genetic engineering technologies, genes of a woolly mammoth, and Asian elephant embryos to ultimately reintroduce the techno-flesh-cyborg into the “wild”. Ben J. Novak, “De-Extinction”, Genes, 9, (2018), 548.
4. See generally Jacque Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, (Verso Books, 2009).
5. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, (Columbia University Press, 1994), 32-33.
6. For more on intra-action read, Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, (Duke University Press, 2007).
7. Daniel C. Fisher, Alexei N. Tikhonov, Pavel A. Kosintsev, Adam N. Rountrey, Bernard Buigues, Johannes van der Plicht, “Anatomy, death, and preservation of a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) calf, Yamal Peninsula, northwest Siberia”, Quaternary International, Volume 255, (2012), 102.
8. Scott F. Gilbert, “Holobiont By Birth- Multilineage Individuals as the Concretion of Cooperative Processes”, in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, ed. Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, Nils Bubandt (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 82.; My Young Yoon, Keehoon, Lee, Sang Sun Yoon, “Protective role of gut commensal microbes against intestinal infections”, Journal of Microbiology 52, (2014), 987.
9. Valles-Colomer M, Falony G, Darzi Y, Tigchelaar EF, Wang J, Tito RY, Schiweck C, Kurilshikov A, Joossens M, Wijmenga C, Claes S, Van Oudenhove L, Zhernakova A, Vieira-Silva S, Raes J. “The neuroactive potential of the human gut microbiota in quality of life and depression.” Nature Microbiol 4: 623-624, 2019.

Victor Zhou is an undergraduate student and art-maker who studies Art History and Design Computing at The University of Sydney. In his forthcoming honour’s year in 2022, he plans to research on his interests which range from photography to environmental humanities.

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