Back from the dead: Should we pursue de-extinction?
August 27, 2016
Woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers, the dodo and the thylacine; all are extinct animals, and we could be closer than you think to bringing them back to life. But should we do so, now that the power is nearly within our grasp?
The Thylacine was native to Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania and became extinct in the 20th Century.
Science is catching up with fiction so quickly that guidelines on exactly which species to bring back have recently been drawn up. A set of ten questions were designed to narrow down the options. The questions include: whether or not we know enough about why the species went extinct to ensure that it can sustain itself in today’s world; if there is suitable habitat for said species to survive; if humans and other species will be impacted by the reintroduction; and whether it will be possible to remove said species in the event things go badly and they negatively impact the ecosystem.
So the woolly mammoth may be a no-go for the simple fact that the world is a very different place from when they roamed the Earth.
“What some are proposing to do with de-extinction will be like manufacturing a part from the engine of a Model T and trying to shove it into a Tesla,” said conservation ecologist Douglas McCauley, lead author of a recent study that tackled the question of de-extinction. “You just can’t take a part and put it into a brand new system and expect it to work without considering how its ecological context has changed.”
He went on to say that nature’s web of life evolves in a dynamic way and so too must our thinking. You can’t put a round peg in a square hole. You’d likely end up with a re-extinction on your hands.
To ensure our thinking doesn’t stretch beyond reality, McCauley and his team came up with three recommendations. They suggest that we aim to restore species that have only recently gone extinct, not those we lost ages ago; they offer up their own suggestions, the Réunion Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis indica) and Australia’s lesser stick-nest rat (Leporillus apicalis). They might not hold the same oomph as the sabre-toothed tiger, but they are certainly more ecologically viable.
Their second suggestion is to revive those whose role in their ecosystem is of such great importance that they cannot be replaced. They use the example of the Christmas Island pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus murrayi) , which was the only species of bat gorging itself on insects within its ecosystem.
The Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica), a potential candidate for de-extinction?
The final recommendation is to bring the species in question back in sufficient numbers to have an influence in their environment. They use the example of a lone wolf, which in itself would have a minimal impact on an ecosystem, but bringing back hundreds could alter it fundamentally.
De-extinction will remain controversial, it is something the scientists are well aware of. “The idea of de-extinction raises a fundamental and philosophical question: Are we doing it to create a zoo or recreate nature?” Benjamin Halpern, co-author of the study and director of UCSB’s National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, said. “We offer guidelines for how to make ecological de-extinction more successful and how to avoid creating ‘eco-zombies.’”
Instead of shutting down the conversation on de-extinction, the scientists are looking to open it up to debate. By following the above guidelines it may be possible to dispel fears of resurrecting long-dead creatures, Jurassic World fans no-doubt will be devastated, which would likely be ecologically ill-suited to our human-scarred planet in any case.
“Can we thoughtfully use this tool to do real conservation?” McCauley posed. If so we may be seeing the Javan Tiger and the Passenger Pigeon again, but unfortunately for history buffs, no Woolly Mammoths or sabre-toothed tigers.