Science Questions

Can we modify cows to make ivory?

Mon, 18th May 2015

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JTB asked:

Since I first learned of the concept of "gene splicing" some decades ago, I have wondered why no one has addressed the following: Why not genetically engineer beef cattle so their horns will be "naturally" made of ivory? Yes, ivory. Both substances are (to my untrained eye) remarkably similar in appearance and consistency. I expect the animal wouldn't know the difference and would not suffer (more than it already does). More than 30 million head of cattle are produced each year in the U.S. alone. Within a short time, ivory would be as rare and treasured as styrofoam. An incredible 50,000 elephants are slaughtered each year for their tusks. That would end almost overnight. The developer of this process would "single handedly" save one of the most majestic creatures on the planet.


We put John's interesting suggestion to Kat Arney...Elephant in Botswana

Kat - I love this idea. I think this is such a great idea. Unfortunately, itís not going to work because the problem is, is that the substance that makes ivory is basically teeth Ė same thing as your teeth. Itís teeth and tusks, they're dentine covered with this hard, white enamel. So, in terms of the development of where the teeth come from and where ivory tusks come from, itís all kind of part of the toothy stuff but cow horns are actually made of living bone, covered with a really thick layer of keratin. Itís the same protein thatís in your skin, your hair, your nails, that kind of thing. and so, they have a completely different developmental origin. They're growing out of the skull. So, to actually switch cow horns into making ivory, you're asking bones to turn into teeth and grow in a completely wrong place because cowís teeth obviously grow in their mouths, not out of the top of their heads. So although itís a lovely idea, I donít think that's going to work.



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Counterfeit Rolex watches outnumber the real thing , but their existence hasn't stopped people buying the real McCoy.
RD, Wed, 29th Oct 2014

Unfortunately, I think RD is quite right. 'Cow horn ivory', if you could call it that, would not even be considered by ivory collectors, even if it were biologically and chemically identical to elephant ivory. They want the real thing.

It would also make telling the real McCoy from the substitute extremely difficult or maybe even impossible. So the evil collectors who perpetuate the trade in elephant ivory and death of more than 25,000 African elephants every year might be in a safer position.

I understand and applaud your motive, but do not think it worthwhile attempting this genetic manipulation when even a successful outcome could (and I believe would) create more problems than it might solve.

Let me put it to you this way, I do like and appreciate fine art. The painstaking skill of the ivory carver can be a marvel to behold. But today we realise the evil that lies behind this art form. I have no desire to own any such objet d'art, nor rhino horn or tortoise shell, so why would I (and many others like me) want to buy a substitute for something I find so abhorrent?

If the problems faced by elephants, rhino, turtles, orang-utans and such like animals are to be overcome, we need to educate the stupid rich who provide the demand and deal with the poverty of the poachers. Don_1, Fri, 31st Oct 2014

So there are fake diamonds, and real diamonds. 
And, still a market for "real" diamonds. 

Perhaps in the future, the value of flawless diamonds will drop, and the natural imperfections will become "important".

As people mentioned, perhaps bringing "fake ivory" into the market may actually cause more demand for real ivory.

I believe that the tusks are highly related to teeth.  Horns are different, and much softer.  Antlers can be very strong, but relatively thin. 

Perhaps one could breed farm animals to grow tusks.  For example, pigs have tusks which one could select to grow larger. CliffordK, Fri, 31st Oct 2014

I think you would still have a problem with this, Clifford.

I'm sure there would be either laws or trade/consumer group insistence that ivory from pigs or boars would have to be appropriately identified. 'Pig ivory' would not satisfy the 'purist' ivory collector.

There have been calls not only to ban the ivory trade altogether, but also to destroy all ivory objet d'art, regardless of its age. Personally, I do not think such measures are workable or enforceable. Don_1, Mon, 3rd Nov 2014

So it seems that pig tusks are closer to elephant tusks than are cow horns, since tusks lack the keratin covering.

I understand that in some parts of the world, people search along rivers after a flood, looking for uncovered mastodon skeletons. These often sport impressive tusks.
See: evan_au, Mon, 3rd Nov 2014

Here in the USA, the market on ivory has pretty much bottomed out.  I have inherited what was probably a cheap ivory necklace (pre 80's), and nobody will even appraise it.  I don't know if it could be sold.  I suppose it wouldn't be a big loss to destroy it. 

On the other hand, Mom has an exquisite hand carved Indian Ivory chess set received as a gift (also from the 70's or 80's).  It may not be an antique yet, but I wouldn't want to have it destroyed.  It probably isn't going up on E-Bay though. 

Anyway, if one knocks out the trade & manufacture of ivory, then the market should go away.  Allow items to be passed vertically in families, but block all trade.

The mammoth ivory I've seen is generally a yellow or brown color, and often cracked.  Not a replacement for elephant ivory, but very unique.

If one could develop a replacement ivory such as pig ivory, being different than elephant ivory should be a benefit as one should be able to verify it is "legal".

However, unless one can get a very very cheap ivory source, having something legal such as pig ivory might cause people to augment their supply with elephant ivory. 

I don't think zoos and circuses sell ivory either because it is too hard to verify the source.

Antlers may be another good source of a material like ivory that is durable and can be carved, and it even has the advantage of growing quickly and falling off every year.  But, the color is usually also a little more yellow than elephant ivory. 

Perhaps that would be something that could be bred, perhaps quite easily,  white antlers on a large animal such as elk. CliffordK, Tue, 4th Nov 2014

I don't think the it would make any difference. You would have a hard time producing elephant size tusks on any animal smaller then a elephant anyway. I See no reason why elephants must be killed to harvest ivory anyway. We cut the tusks of domesticated elephants and they don't die. Also there is not much chemical difference between your toe nail clippings and a rhino's horn yet in many asian countries they believe rhino horn has some medical or dietary benefit worth killing rhinos to get it. So producing another source of ivory is not going to stop people from wanting elephant ivory.  And why is domestic breeding of cattle for meat, leather and other byproducts better then managing a elephant herd for the same? We seem to have double standards toward one  animal vs another most cultural. For example in the US horse meat is taboo but commonly eaten throughout the world. Even though we hardly have no monopoly on rising horses for sport and companionship we just draw the line on eating flicka.

I take a different view then most on this i think as I see no deference in the practice of saving a forrest with well planed management and harvest of forrest products. and managing other natural resources. It is counter productive if you want elephant ivory to be available in the future to kill all the elephants now instead of simply managing a sustainable level of elephants and harvesting a few to maintain the population within what the area of land the herd is on can support. Really if alone their population would grow until animals died from starvation as there is not a unlimited amount of suitable elephant habitat. AND you also have to take into account growing human populations that compete for that same land. I do not see any wild animals surviving in the wild without direct human intervention to preserve areas and then manage the populations in those areas. As we create unnatural limitations for those populations because coexistence of human civilizations and many species of animal are simply not possible. No one wants lions living in their back yard when the only pray left around is you or your livestock. because you took over the area that once supported the lions food source to grow crops and graze livestock. by the same token no one wants elephants eating and trampling your crops ether. And this is only going to get worse as drought (from climate change or not) and growing population will lead to need for More food production which means a need for more management of wildlife areas or they will be sacrificed for food production. I know many wildlife protection advocates will condemn me for this view but sorry I put a greater value on Human life then animals. So if the animal is useful to humans we will find a way to make sure they survive. If that value is simply esthetic for us to see them living in the wild so be it. But just because there are no bars and cages a wildlife refuge is just a open free range zoo with limited boundaries and limited available habitat. sooner or later we will be faced with population control. And if any one species becomes over dominate we must intervene to preserve diversity and health populations. To believe we can stop progress and preserve wildlife habitats as they were for ever is naive. Michael Fournier, Wed, 14th Oct 2015

It seems to me that the key to this theory is with the people doing the 'manufacturing' of the ivory pieces.  As an artist, I have to  be aware of the costs of my materials, I would seriously consider a cheaper sources when ever they are available.  I might be much more inclined if the customer could not tell the difference, if I were dealing with something like stones or ivory.  In fact, couldn't they be sourced to the craftsmen as well with out them knowing if they were not sold whole?  I was once given a piece of ivory to use as a stone in jewelry making it was just a  piece, not a tusk, how would I know the difference?  These could be sold the the African (and other) craftsmen to make trinkets to sell to the 'stupid rich tourists' without destroying their world.  This could/should be one of those times when a little clever dishonesty would work for us all.  Just let the poachers be the wholesale horn sellers.  Then we just need to increase penalties for poaching.  SHWZ, Fri, 8th Jan 2016

Another thread on this site discussed some possible definitions of consciousness.

I see far more signs of consciousness in elephants than in cattle.

For example, there are experiments showing that elephants can recognize individual elephants, even after a long separation, and anecdotes about elephants recognizing the place where one of their herd died.

I think that demonstrating consciousness puts a greater responsibility on us for their protection and welfare.

In any case, poaching and extermination of elephants in the wild is a bad idea! evan_au, Fri, 8th Jan 2016

- Elephant tusks are actually huge, modified upper incisor teeth. They have roots, dentine, cementum, living pulp and are deeply embedded their own tooth socket. Interestingly, they donít have enamel.
- Pig tusks are large canine teeth, upper and lower. They already grow continuously, so it wouldnít make much difference to selectively breed ones with large tusks. Their tusks have a terrible habit of curling and growing back into the animal's head when they overgrow. Urrgh! This can both be painful and prohibit the animal from eating normally.
- Cattle do not have any upper incisors. They instead have a single hard, upper dental pad that neatly opposes the lower incisors for grabbing and cutting grass. They also donít have canine teeth. It would seem fairly fair fetched that a bovine could ever develop elephant-like tusks, given the required teeth are completely absent. Also if it did grow tusks, it would not be able to eat as its mouth would not longer reach the ground (unless it also grew a trunk!)
- A bull's horn consists of a hollow, bony extension of his skull, covered in keratin. Which is very different to a tooth, structurally and developmentally. If horns are removed in an adult bull (not preferred), the bull's frontal sinuses become exposed to the outside world. On a cold day, you might see 'steam' blowing out both sides of the head of such a bull, since its breath is essentially exiting the top his head. Usually the bull's horns are removed (polled) at a much younger age (as a calf) or they are bred from genetic lines that lack horns.
- I think it is quite a leap to be able to make an animal grow a giant tooth on the top of his head; not just a simple, single genetic modification. A tusk would also be significantly denser than a horn, which would weigh down his head in an ethically questionable way.
- In domestic livestock, horns and tusks are usually removed to facilitate safe handling of the animals, and to prevent animals from injuring/killing each other. Who would want to farm a thousand bulls or pigs with giant tusks?
- Unfortunately people want rare and unobtainable things. The weirder the better. The fact it comes from a majestic elephant is probably the only thing special about Ďivoryí. It just looks like a boring old tooth to me. SquarishTriangle, Fri, 18th Mar 2016

The latest figures suggest that about 50,000 elephants are being killed every year, from a worldwide population of around 450,000.

If the current rate of slaughter continues, elephant herds in the wild could disappear in just 9 years.

The main market appears to be for signature stamps in Japan. Why can't they just make them out of white plastic? Nobody would notice the difference...

See: evan_au, Fri, 18th Mar 2016

Why don't just grow ivory in the lab?
Scientist already have grown meat fibers. justdaniokey, Fri, 24th Jun 2016

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