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woolly mammoths and the restoration of an Ice-Age ecosystem…
During the last ice age northeastern Siberia remained a grassy refuge for scores of animals, including bison and woolly mammoths. Then, about 10,000 years ago, this vast ecosystem disappeared as the Ice Age ended.
Now, though, the Ice Age landscape is on its way back, with a little help from the Russian scientists who have established “Pleistocene Park.”
The scientists hope to uncover what killed off the woolly mammoth and other Ice Age animals. To do so, they’re restoring the prehistoric ecosystem once found in what is now the remote Sakha region of eastern Russia.
The land is slowly being turned into willow savanna, as it was 10,000 years ago. Dozens of wild horses are already grazing in the refuge, and there are plans to import bison and musk oxen.
Most spectacularly, the wildlife park may one day become home to a genetic hybrid of the extinct woolly mammoth and the modern-day elephant. But the park probably will not see its most majestic potential inhabitant for several decades, if ever.
Japanese scientists, working with Russians, have for years been searching for mammoth carcasses to use for reviving woolly mammoths, which would then be introduced into Pleistocene Park.
The plan: to extract sperm DNA from frozen mammoth remains and inject it into a female elephant’s eggs to produce a hybrid offspring. By repeating the procedure over generations, scientists would eventually create an animal that is mostly mammoth.
One problem, however, has been finding mammoth DNA that is sufficiently well preserved in ice to still be viable. The DNA in mammoth fossils that have been found has been unusable, damaged by time and climate changes.
Also, many mammoth experts scoff at the idea, calling it scientifically impossible and even morally irresponsible.
“DNA preserved in ancient tissues is fragmented into thousands of tiny pieces nowhere near sufficiently preserved to drive the development of a baby mammoth,” said Adrian Lister, a paleontologist at University College London in England.
Sergey Zimov, who is not involved in the mammoth-recreation effort, initiated the project to restore the Pleistocene ecosystem in 1989. He hopes to test the theory that hunting, not climate change, wiped out the animals that once thrived in northern Siberia.
“I want to show how many animals can exist if nobody hinders them to live,” said Zimov, who directs the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) south of the Arctic Sea in the Russian republic of Sakha (also known as Yakutiya).
In the area of Sakha where the park is located, temperatures fluctuate between highs of about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) in the summer and lows of -58 degrees Fahrenheit (-50 degrees Celsius) in the winter.
During the driest periods of the Pleistocene, which lasted from about 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago, the vegetation was mainly low grass.
During warmer periods the land turned into meadows and steppes, ideal grazing grounds for woolly mammoths, rhinoceroses, bison, horses, elk, and yaks. Among the predators were cave lions and wolves.
When this vast ecosystem disappeared 10,000 years ago, the land turned into mossy tundra. The only plant eaters to survive were reindeer that grazed on lichens and moose that fed on willows.
The cause of the extinctions of large animals such as woolly mammoths has been a topic of great debate. Many scientists argue that the sudden shift to a warmer and moister climate proved catastrophic to the steppe vegetation and the animals that thrived on it.
“I’m completely on the side of natural, environmental causes of extinction,” said Andrei Sher, a well-known paleontologist at Moscow’s A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution.
Zimov, however, believes that humans, using increasingly efficient hunting practices, killed off the woolly mammoths and the other large animals.
But could a small population of hunters kill millions of animals?
“Imagine a picture in which someone from the neighboring tribe teaches you to make new … weapons” such as spears, Zimov said.
“Now you kill the first animal. Will you carefully prepare and consume all the meat, surrounded as you are by clouds of mosquitoes? Or will you just cut out the tongue, knowing that there are millions more [animals]?
“Over time, people probably understood that they should take care of the animals, but by then it was too late,” he added.
By reintroducing the Pleistocene animals, Zimov says scientists may be able to determine what role the animals played in maintaining their own habitat. Researchers may also better understand the forces that vanquished the Ice Age ecosystem.
While much of the Siberian tundra is now covered with moss, the 160 square kilometers (62 square miles) designated for the park is an even split of meadow, larch forest, and willow shrubland.
“All plants that were there in the Pleistocene epoch are preserved there today,” Zimov said.
The park will eventually be cordoned off, though it will remain open to adventurous tourists who can get to such a remote location, which is accessible only by helicopter.
So far, only 20 square kilometers (about 8 square miles) have been fenced off. Within the park hardy Yakutian horses, the closest descendants of the Pleistocene horse, roam alongside reindeer and moose. Plans to import of Canadian bison, however, are on hold due to fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.
Zimov says he hopes to increase the density of plant eaters sufficiently to influence the vegetation and soil in the park and stabilize its grasslands. Once herbivore populations have been established, the plan is to acclimatize Siberian tigers, predators whose modern survival is threatened by poaching.
a brief history of three momentous films that didn’t make the cut…
In the mid-1960s, with his career at a low ebb following the critical failure of Marnie and an ambivalent response to Torn Curtain, Alfred Hitchcock worked on a groundbreaking experimental film that would have represented a radical change in his style-possibly heralding a new late phase of cinematic creativity.
Kaleidoscope was the story of a serial rapist and killer. It was initially envisaged as a kind of prelude to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. There would be several murders, including an attempt on the life of a decoy policewoman – an idea that particularly excited Hitchcock – and a Psycho-style stabbing. And the director intended to use story details from infamous UK criminal cases (including an acid bath murderer and a necrophile).
This could have been Hitchcock’s darkest film. Indeed, Hitchcock himself worried that some scenes might be too frightening for the audience. In a bold move, he wanted to tell the entire story from the perspective of the killer, envisaged as an attractive, vulnerable young man (Hitchcock later decided that the character would be gay). More radically, he planned to experiment with innovative filming techniques such as hand-held filming and natural light.
Unfortunately, MCA studios turned the film down as they apparently thought that the protagonist was too “ugly”, a decision that rankled with Hitchcock for the rest of his life. All that remains now of his experiment is an hour-long tape of silent footage – and the tantalising prospect of a new wave of Hitchcock films in a new vérité style, influenced by the European avant garde, to whom he had become a deity.
In the 1920s, the pioneering Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein changed the face of cinema with his celebrated Battleship Potemkin – a seminal illustration of his theories of montage. And if he had succeeded in completing Que Viva Mexico, his ambitious social history of Mexico, weaving together its myths, art, religion, and social history, he might have changed cinema history once again.
Unfortunately, Eisenstein’s financial backer, the American novelist Upton Sinclair, cancelled the production before filming was completed in 1932. In part this was due to the film’s extended delays and increased expenses brought on by arduous working conditions in Mexico, as well as Eisenstein’s increasingly epic conception of the film. However, a telex from Stalin presenting Eisenstein as a traitor to Russia also weighed heavily on the project. The director was forced to return to Russia empty-handed. Although Sinclair promised to send him the footage, he was prohibited from doing so by the Russian state.
Que Viva Mexico represented a breakthrough in Eisenstein’s artistic development. Gone was the social realist approach to montage; in its place came an innovative improvised approach, a freer, more personal kind of cinema, exploring picture composition and mise-en-scène, anticipating directors like Von Sternberg. He was never again to achieve this kind of creative freedom.
Several versions of the film were culled from the footage, but none bear comparison to Eisenstein’s ambitious vision, notwithstanding the fragmentary beauty of Edouard Tisse’s stark vivid images. However, the influence of the film’s imagery can be seen on directors such as Luis Buñuel, John Huston and Orson Welles.
Although Orson Welles left a myriad of incomplete films during his 50 years in cinema, Don Quixote was his most enduring passion. He began filming in 1955 and continued in Mexico, Spain and Italy over the following decades, bringing together the cast and crew whenever he could raise the finance. Indeed, Welles was still talking about finishing the film months before his death in 1985. Don Quixote was Welles’s great obsession. “What interests me is the idea of these dated virtues [like chivalry] and why they seem to speak to us, when by all logic they are so hopelessly irrelevant,” he said in an interview, revealing that this was a key theme of his films. In Welles’s film, Quixote was a timeless figure who leaves 16th-century Andalusia to confront modern Spain and the modern world.
The film mutated countless times over the years. Unable or unwilling to finish it, Welles continued proliferating images and stories, not unlike the style of Cervantes’ book. All that was left at the end of Welles’s life was 300,000ft of film footage poorly organised and distributed across the world.
A hastily “restored” version of the film, put together by Jess Franco in 1992, director of exploitation films such as She Killed in Ecstasy, was received with revulsion. It offered only occasional glimpses of Welles’s brilliance and Francisco Reiguera’s superb performance as Don Quixote.
Over the decades, Welles indiscriminately accepted films in order to raise finance for this film. This was not the only sacrifice he made. At the end of editing Touch of Evil, he rushed off to Mexico to film Don Quixote. And Universal studios, taking advantage of his absence, radically re-edited his dark noir masterpiece.
also see Kubrick’s “Napoleon”…