How to Clone a Mammoth

What You Need


  • Copies of How to Clone a Mammoth
How to Clone a Mammoth


To develop an understanding of various challenges and issues with bringing extinct species back to life.


This lesson uses the book How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro (Princeton University Press, 2015). The book was selected as the winner of the 2016 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Young Adult category.

In her book, molecular paleontologist Beth Shapiro walks readers through the process of de-extinction, or bringing extinct species—such as the wooly mammoth and passenger pigeon—back to life through the use of cutting-edge biotechnology. In doing so, she provides a thorough description of the actual experimental techniques that would be used to resurrect animals (and plants, although not the focus of this book) from the past. For many students, resurrecting extinct animals and cloning technologies are associated with the cinematic Jurassic World phenomena. While bringing dinosaurs back to life makes for entertaining movies, the question remains: Is cloning an extinct animal plausible? If so, how? Shapiro dives into the “how” in an honest way. She brings up technical challenges, debates among scientists, questions of funding, and asks the reader to consider what the point of bringing back animals would actually be.

While the book is written in an easy-to-read language, the specific details about DNA technology may be challenging for students who are unfamiliar with genetics. The first two chapters of the book ("Reversing Extinction" and "Select a Species") are great introductions to the science and some of the associated challenges of de-extinction. For students who are more advanced in biology (such as AP Biology students), chapters 3–8 demonstrate the application of biotechnologies they are learning about in the classroom—such as PCR, genome editing, and nuclear transfer—to the science of de-extinction.

Prior to the lesson, it may be useful for students to first explore the science of cloning and address myths or misconceptions about the science. The Genetic Science Learning Center of the University of Utah has a Cloning site that offers short online walk-throughs of the science and a page dedicated to addressing misconceptions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also addresses common misconceptions about animal cloning.

A common misconception that students have about DNA is that the hereditary material of cells differs in the body, such that each cell contains only the genetic information required for its function. For example, students may think that DNA related to eye development is only found in eye cells. In other words, it is not always clear to students that every cell in an individual’s body (with few exceptions) contains an identical set of DNA molecules and, therefore, contains identical genetic information. In her book, when Shapiro speaks about collecting more samples for more DNA, it may be worth clarifying that the DNA of the organism is the same, no matter where the sample comes from (tusk, skin, bone, hair, etc.). If we want to recreate wooly mammoth hair, for example, we do not specifically require DNA from wooly mammoth hair cells.

Other misconceptions that students may have about genetics, DNA, and reproduction are described at Reproduction, Genes, and Heredity, from Project 2061, and include:

  • Genetic information does not impact an animal’s behavior.
  • Genes and traits are the same thing.
  • In sexually reproducing organisms, half of the organism’s body cells contain DNA from the father and half contain DNA from the mother.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts in these Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.11-12.5 Analyze how the text structures information or ideas into categories or hierarchies, demonstrating understanding of the information or ideas.

Planning Ahead

For teacher preparation, it is highly recommended to read Beth Shapiro's book beforehand. As a supplement to reading the book, there are two online videos that are highly recommended to watch.

The first is a 50-minute online lecture through the Royal Institution of Great Britain in which she walks through the question, “Can we clone a mammoth?” in easy-to-understand language. The lecture provides a great overview of the book.

The second is Beth Shapiro's presentation for the TEDx DeExtinction event, held in Washington, D.C., in 2013. In this short 10-minute talk, Shapiro addresses what ancient DNA is, what we can learn from studying ancient DNA, and the challenges of bringing an extinct animal (like the mammoth) back.


Begin the lesson by asking students to consider and name what species they would like to bring back from extinction, just as Shapiro does with her college students. Compile the list of named species and ask students to explain why they chose the organisms they did.

Next, students should use their How to Clone a Mammoth student esheet to watch What to Bring Back?, a short two-minute video by Beth Shapiro where she answers the question. As students watch the video, they should answer the questions on their Science of De-Extinction student sheet. After watching the video, the class can discuss the questions:

  • What are some of the factors that we should consider when deciding who to bring back?
    • (One factor to consider is the length of time between two generations, also known as generation time. A second factor is to consider where we would place the animal. The third mentioned by Shapiro in the video is to consider the risks when reintroducing an extinct species into an existing community.)
  • What is generation time and why should it be a consideration for bringing back an extinct species? 
    • (Generation time is the length of time between two generations. Animals that reproduce slowly, like elephants, would require us to wait for longer periods of time to see a second generation. Animals that reproduce quickly would allow us to have new generations in shorter periods of time.)
  • Why might reintroducing an extinct animal into a habitat be considered risky?
    • (Environments adapt when a species goes extinct. We do not know what the impact of reintroducing the animal would be on the habitat.)


Pose the question to students, “What does the term de-extinction mean?” Challenge students in their responses by asking follow-up questions, such as:

  • How many organisms of a species do we have to bring back to consider de-extinction successful?
  • What if we bring back an organism that contains 50% of the genetic material of a living animal and 50% of an extinct animal. Is that considered de-extinction?

Now, students should use their esheet to watch What is De-Extinction?, a one-minute video where Shapiro defines what de-extinction means, and lead a classroom discussion to ensure that students understand the following points:

  • It is not possible to bring back an animal that is 100% the extinct animal (e.g., it is not possible to clone a mammmoth).
  • De-extinction is about bringing back traits of the extinct animal.

Ask students, “What would we need from an extinct animal to bring back some of its traits?” Review information about DNA and hereditary information, such as where it is stored, how it replicates, and what it codes for. To bring back an extinct animal and its traits, we would need to search for its DNA. This is called ancient DNA—DNA isolated and extracted from ancient specimens.

To introduce students to ancient DNA and Beth Shapiro’s book, they should use their esheet to watch How to Bring a Mammoth Back to Life, Beth Shapiro’s TEDx presentation. They should answer the questions on the student sheet. Discuss the questions with the class:

  • What does Beth Shapiro do for a living?
    • (Shapiro is a molecular paleontologist.)
  • Why go to the Arctic to collect ancient DNA samples?
    • (She retrieves fossils and remains from Ice Age animals to bring back to her lab, where she attempts to retrieve their DNA.)
  • Why is the Arctic an ideal place to get ancient DNA?
    • (It is the best place for the long-term preservation of DNA because it has been consistently cold for at least the last million years.)
  • Go through the steps of “how to bring a mammoth back.”
    • (1. Sequence the genome, 2.) Get this genome onto chromosomes, 3.) Place those chromosomes into the nucleus, 4.) Place the nucleus into the cell and allow it to divide into an embryo, 5.) Place the embryo into a surrogate mother, 6.) The developing embryo needs to go to term in the surrogate mother and be born, 7.) It must survive and live in an appropriate environment, and eventually make more mammoths!)

At this point, students should now have a good overview of ancient DNA and the challenges that face de-extinction projects, such as resurrecting mammoths. By watching the videos and engaging students in discussion, they have also had opportunities to correct their misconceptions.

In the next part of the lesson, students can independently read Shapiro’s book, How to Clone a Mammoth. Depending on their level in biology, you may choose to have students read the first two chapters, or the entire book. It is recommended to set a time frame for reading each chapter and to do a brief check-in at the start of class. Guiding questions for discussions (as a classroom or in small groups) can include:

  • What was this chapter about? (Help students in summarizing the chapter in a couple sentences.)
  • What are some key terms that came up in this chapter? (You may want to start a running list of key terms and definitions. These can be posted in the classroom, written directly in the book, or in students' notebooks.)
  • What was the most interesting thing you read in this chapter?
  • What was confusing about what you read? (Help students clarify their understanding.)


In Chapter 2, Shapiro proposes seven questions that scientists should ask and answer when selecting a species for de-extinction. Have students create a visual that describes these seven questions and what their answer is, based on their reading. For example, Shapiro’s first question is whether there is a compelling reason to bring this species back. On page 51, Shapiro describes how the ideal de-extinction candidate has both sufficiently closely related living relatives to make the de-extinction feasible and unique traits or adaptations to a particular habitat. Have students use the How to Clone a Mammoth student sheet for this work.

Examples of ways that students can present their visual include a poster, video, graphic novel, drawing, or their own version of a TEDx talk. An example of an animation of Beth Shapiro’s work can be found here.

Consider developing a detailed rubric for assessment of the presentations. There are several resources on the Internet that describe the use of rubrics in the K-12 classroom, a few of which are highlighted here.

To learn more about rubrics in general, see Make Room for Rubrics on the Scholastic site.

For specific examples of rubrics, more information, and links to other resources, check out the following sites:

Finally, you can go to Teacher Rubric Makers on the Teach-nology.com website to create your own rubrics. At this site you can fill out forms to create rubrics suitable for your particular students, and then print them instantly from your computer.


Back from the Dead is a lesson plan developed by Scholastic to help students in grades 9-12 understand how scientists are using biotechnology to bring extinct animals back, with a focus on the wooly mammoth. 

Students who are advanced in their understanding of biology or interested in biotechnologies can map the steps and various biotechnologies needed to develop elephants with genes modified to express mammoth traits.

Shapiro mentions numerous de-extinction and conservation projects, which can also be researched and discussed by students as follow up. Examples include the bucardo, California condor, dodo, banteng, Lazarus frog, passenger pigeon, Steller’s sea cow, and Yangtze River dolphin.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards