Elephants are often admired in captivity and beloved for their intelligence and charisma, but did you know that in the wild they alleviate climate change and are vital to generating sustenance and shelter for iconic grassland species like zebras, impalas, and buffalo? While all three species of elephants are crucial to the functionality and diversity of the ecosystems they inhabit, they’re all also facing unprecedented declines due to habitat loss, human conflict, and disease. But not if Colossal Biosciences has anything to say about it.
With the World Wildlife Fund reporting that at least 20,000 African elephants are killed each year by illegal poachers, and experts from the Oregon Zoo estimating that 1 in 5 young Asian elephants die in captivity — and likely the wild — from EEHV (elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus), innovations in conservation may be the key to preventing the extinction of our favorite animals. Colossal Biosciences recognizes the ecological importance of elephants and the need for novel solutions to combat their population declines — and they’re not just talking the talk, they’re walking the walk.
Founded by technological entrepreneur Ben Lamm and renowned geneticist Dr. George Church, Colossal Biosciences has taken a unique approach to elephant conservation. While the company’s end goal is to reverse the extinction process and revive long-gone legends like the woolly mammoth and dodo, Colossal is also dedicated to sequencing the genomes of all three current elephant species and developing a vaccine against the deadly EEHV. Since its founding in 2021, Colossal has raised $225 million in total funding for its de-extinction and conservation efforts.
Elephants: A Keystone to Biodiversity and Fighting Climate Change
While it’s not unheard of to assume that focusing such extensive efforts and resources on an individual species is frivolous, as a keystone species, the long-term and widespread impacts that elephants (and potentially their prehistoric counterparts, the woolly mammoth) have on the environment cannot be understated.
Recognized as having a significant impact on ecosystems relative to their abundance, keystone species shape our environments and provide essential services that, if lost, would have detrimental effects on the ecosystem. Many of the world’s most beautiful and pristine landscapes, such as Yellowstone National Park in the western U.S. and Patagonia in South America would be unrecognizable without keystone species like the gray wolf and beaver.
As the world’s largest keystone species, elephants have a massive impact on their surroundings, with conservation efforts known to have an “umbrella effect” on an ecosystem, providing far-reaching results despite a seemingly limited scope.
Given their massive size and propensity to walk up to 7.5 miles per day, elephants have a disproportionately momentous impact on their native ecosystems. In the savannas and rainforests of Africa and Asia, elephants can break down dense foliage, providing pathways, food, and habitats for smaller mammals and increasing light penetration to promote plant biodiversity. Elephants often create watering holes that support a myriad of biodiversity in wet and dry climates alike. In the rainforest, rainwater pools in their footprints and can act as microhabitats for bugs and tadpoles. In the savanna, the behemoths can use their tusks to tap into deep groundwater reservoirs, providing hydration for a list of species in direly dry conditions.
Labeled as ecosystem engineers, elephants also play a major role in the plant compositions of their respective environments. Through their dung, African elephants can disperse thousands of seeds per day as far as 40 miles away from their origin, more than can be said for any land mammal and many bird species. Certain plant species are completely reliant on elephants for dispersal, and a variety of insects (such as the dung beetle) depend on elephant droppings as a food source or spot to lay their eggs. In addition to its help in disbursing seeds, elephant excrement is considered a natural fertilizer, with grass in areas where elephants graze containing as much as 50% more nitrogen than in areas without elephants.
While the benefits elephants provide their ecosystems are more than enough justification for large-scale conservation efforts, the impact that elephants can have on climate change may be an even greater boon. Since elephants prefer to snack on vegetation with a low carbon density (or ability to store carbon), their grazing makes room for vegetation with a high carbon density to grow, thus promoting carbon sequestration.
This is supported by a report published by Saint Louis University that found that the absence of the African forest elephant — an already critically endangered species — from its native rainforest could result in the Earth losing between 6% to 9% of its ability to store carbon and exacerbate climate change.
“If we lose forest elephants, we will be doing a global disservice to climate change mitigation,” said Stephen Blake, Ph.D., senior author of the paper. “The importance of forest elephants for climate mitigation must be taken seriously by policymakers to generate the support needed for elephant conservation. The role of forest elephants in our global environment is too important to ignore.”
A similar study conducted by the International Monetary Fund found that restoring elephants in the African rainforest to their former range and pre-poaching levels can sequester as much carbon as 250,000 trees and provide over $150 billion in carbon-capture services.
Colossal Biosciences: ‘The Largest Land Animal on Earth Needs Our Largest Conservation Effort. Now’
Given the colossal benefits that elephants provide our ecosystem, it’s only fitting that Colossal Biosciences has invested substantial effort into conserving and “backing up” the species. “The largest land animal on earth needs our largest conservation efforts. Now,” Colossal posted on its website. “The Asian elephant and African Savanna elephant are classified by the [International Union for Conservation of Nature] as ‘endangered,’ while the African Forest elephant is listed as ‘critically endangered.’ All species are in dire need of a science that will save them.”
Colossal is hard at work on that science. In addition to the use of CRISPR technology to develop a vaccine for EEHV — the same technology used in sequencing a woolly mammoth — Colossal Biosciences has partnered with the Vertebrate Genomes Project to generate a high-quality reference genome for all three elephant species.
In May 2023, Colossal and the VGP published the first-ever, near-complete chromosome level genome sequence of the African elephant to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. This marks the second elephant genome published by Colossal and the VGP following the complete sequencing of the Asian elephant in 2022 (which is currently one of the highest-quality mammal genomes in existence).
Mapping a species’ genome not only grants insight into their evolutionary process and needs for survival, but also ensures that charismatic and ecologically valuable species like the elephant have a genetic backup and won’t fall victim to extinction.
As Colossal CEO Ben Lamm told The Dallas Morning News, “We hope that elephants won’t go extinct. We hope that humanity can save them. But in the event that they do, we at least want to see that reference data.”
With all three elephant species showing worsening population trends in their latest IUCN assessment and the effects of climate change predicted to further exacerbate their plight down the road, there’s a harsh possibility that the future of elephants will rely on this sequence. For all we know, future generations may be thanking Colossal and the VPG for the lushness and biodiversity of our savannas and rainforests — and for saving the elephants.