A Focus On Nature

Issues in conservation, Species

DeExtinction: Species Saviour or Zombie Nightmare? By Harry Martin.

Harry is a budding bird watcher, conservationist, naturalist and wildlife photographer.  Holidays to Scotland at an early age inspired and drove him towards his desire to work with wildlife and in conservation.  He has developed his photography over the years with a recent commendation in the mammal society photography awards he hopes to achieve more with his images. Now in his final year at the University of Manchester, studying Zoology, after having just returned from a year placement at Aigas Field Centre in the Scottish Highlands.  Any free time is spent getting out to local areas to bird and take photographs.

Mention to someone the idea of bringing species back from extinction and I’d bet they think of Jurassic Park.  But the idea of bringing species back, or DeExtinction as it is now called, along with the science, has come a very long way since those movies.  In fact, DeExtinction is rapidly moving from the impossible fiction it once was, to full-blooded reality.  So where do we stand at the moment on reviving species, and, should we bring them back in the first place?

It is said by many that we are now living through the sixth great extinction, often referred to as the Holocene extinction (the current period we live in from ~10,000BC).  Since humans started to disperse across the Earth we have altered almost every ecosystem directly or indirectly, most notably with the removal of many species of flora and fauna.  The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has evidence for 875 extinctions occurring between 1500 and 2009.  This is very unlikely, however, to represent the true scale of current extinction rates, with some estimates at between 10,000 & 100,000 species being lost per year!  Many are aware that the likes of woolly mammoth, dodo and more recently the Tasmanian tiger have disappeared, quite possibly (and definitely in the case of the dodo) because of human actions, such as hunting.  There are many, many more examples of species which have fallen by our hand into extinction both prehistorically and recently, with infinitely more facing a similar threat in the near future.

The prospect of resurrecting extinct species and helping prevent the extinction of others has captured the imagination of scientists and conservationists, and more recently the public’s at TEDxDeExtinction in March 2013.  The possibility of bringing back the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon generated a lot of excitement in many circles, but has also attracted many criticisms (which I shall discuss below).  Although the idea has not been greeted with unanimous enthusiasm, there is now a sense of inevitability that with the rapid advancement of genetics, and other technologies, in the future some species will be successfully resurrected.

Some may be surprised to hear that, technically, resurrection of an extinct animal has already been achieved.  In 2000, a subspecies of the Pyrenean ibex, the bucardo, went extinct after the last surviving female was crushed by a falling tree.  Three years later though, with the same cloning techniques used in Dolly the sheep, DNA from this female was used to create embryos implanted in goats.  One of these was successfully brought to term, but unfortunately the kid choked to death only several minutes after birth.  The method used for the bucardo however only works where scientists have access to cellular information, i.e. from living tissue (scientists took cells from the last bucardo shortly after she died).  More recently however, new technology is allowing long-extinct species’ DNA and genomes to be recreated.

There are now several projects in action across the world working on the potential resurrection of extinct species.  Not surprisingly, work is being done to extract DNA from the preserved carcasses of woolly mammoths from the Siberian permafrost.  Mammoths only went extinct 4,000 years ago, a lot more recently than some people imagine.  The team, made up of scientists from Japan, Russia & USA say they are aiming to produce a baby mammoth within six years or so; ambitious to say the least.

Another team of scientists is hoping to bring back the gastric brooding frog, which disappeared from Australia in 1983.  Project Lazarus has already managed to culture eggs and encourage them to divide to a simple multi-cell stage last year, and so hopes to produce the first actual frogs soon.  The Uruz project is hoping to bring back the auroch, the huge ancestor of all domestic cattle; this bovine went extinct in 1627.  It’s DNA has been completely sequenced and scientists are hoping to use ‘genome editing’; altering the DNA of current cattle breeds to more closely resemble the genome of the auroch, to create something as close as possible to the original animal.  One of the most promising projects aims to bring back the passenger pigeon, the last of which died in 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo (a female called Martha).  Work on sequencing the genome of the passenger pigeon began in 2001 and the first pigeons are expected to be produced by 2025, with birds being released into the wild predicted for 2060.  This may sound like a fair way into the future, but 15/20 years ago, even speculation of doing this kind of work would have been laughable.

Not only is this new genetic technology being used to work on extinct species, but it is also providing the tools to help conserve those species on the edge of extinction, such as the Northern white rhino.  There are even plans to try and edit the genomes of bats in North America which are currently suffering heavy losses due to white-nose syndrome, with millions of bats being lost over the past decade.  Bats in Europe however are immune to the disease-causing fungus, if the genetic basis for this immunity can be identified, it could be put into North American bats.  This genetic intervention has been termed ‘facilitated adaptation’ and could help save many species under threat from disease.

So it has become evident that we will soon be able to recreate extinct species, but the question is should we?  With humans having been responsible for the removal of many species, the last two known great auks were speared by Icelandic fishermen in 1884.  The passenger pigeon was shot and hunted to extinction in a remarkably short period of time.  Even as recently as 1860 a single flock numbered over 3 billion birds, and in 1880 was still the most populous vertebrate on Earth.  A single passenger pigeon nesting ground once occupied an area as large as 850 square miles (the equivalent of 37 Manhattans!).  The death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914 was an event that broke the public’s heart and persuaded everyone that extinction is the core of humanity’s relation with nature.  Consequently, many feel that it is our moral duty to restore those species we have removed.  Their view is that by bringing back these species we will have fulfilled some kind of environmental justice or our obligation to restore the balance of nature we have disrupted.

While to an extent I agree that we should be trying to mitigate the effect we have on the environment (and I am a large advocate of rewilding, although that’s a whole other discussion), I feel that the phrase and concept of “the balance of nature” is incorrect.  In reality there is no such thing as the balance of nature, nature is defined by change.  Bringing species back on the basis of that we need to restore an imagined concept of balance in the natural world is not a strong argument for doing so.

Instead, as some are doing now, DeExtinction is being thought of as ecological restoration; helping to restore the full function of ecosystems.  Woolly mammoths, again, are a good example of this.  As well as being pretty cool to see mammoths roaming the Earth once again, historically they played a crucial role in grazing the Siberian steppe landscape.  In the absence of mammoth’s, along with global warming, the arctic permafrost is starting to melt, releasing greenhouse gases which could rapidly accelerate climate change.  Scientists have proposed that the reintroduction of mammoths to those landscapes would increase grass diversity and density, thus helping to stabilize the permafrost and prevent it melting.  Additionally there must be suitable habitat and the correct conditions for extinct animals to be returned to.  In the case of the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, much of its original habitat is still intact, along with its primary prey species, and so presents a pretty good candidate for DeExtinction.

Bringing back charismatic creatures could also help to inspire the next generation of nature lovers, scientists and conservationists.  While some argue that DeExtinction heralds the end of conservation biology, this simply isn’t true; it will have to play a key role in helping reintroduce species to their past ranges and ensuring viable populations exist.  As some species today act as flagship species, so could extinct species; helping to protect whole ecosystems and the species that live in them.  On the other hand, however, it has been argued that DeExtinction may reduce the motivation, and funding, for traditional conservation if we know we can simply bring back a species if it goes extinct.  Personally I disagree with this point, with the view that DeExtinction is a high publicity activity and will probably serve to increase awareness of current issues in conservation, and possibly help to increase available funding.  At the moment the techniques used to try and restore extinct species are incredibly expensive and traditional conservation still offers the best option for saving those species near the brink of extinction.

Technology is advancing at an unparalleled rate, and it seems conceivable that in the coming decade or so we could see extinct species brought back.  This then, could be beginnings of a new chapter in conservation, and one that I think is very promising and exciting.

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