It’s hard to have a conversation about bringing extinct creatures back to life without a tip-of-the-hat to Jurassic Park, or the latest instalment, Jurassic World, due out Thursday. Massive people-eaters escaping their bonds and ravaging humanity may make good cinema but the arguments both for and against de-extinction are more subtle and wide ranging.
De-extinction is based on the concept that extinction need not be forever. One way to save those animals and plants that we thought were already lost is via genomic techniques, which can link molecular biology and conservation.
The image of dinosaurs walking the modern-day Earth may be enough to turn some people on or off the idea immediately. But for a myriad of reasons, these great beasts of the long distant past aren’t among the immediate candidates for de-extinction.
Instead, creatures such as the Pyrenean Ibex, the Passenger Pigeon and our own Tasmanian Tiger – all animals that have gone extinct in living memory – are in the sights of scientists around the world as part of the The Long Now Foundation.
Professor Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales is a member of this foundation, and in a 2013 TEDx DeExtinction talk he said:
[…] if it’s clear that we [humanity] exterminated these species then I think we not only have a moral obligation to see what we could do about it, but I think we’ve got a moral imperative to try to do something, if we can.
Not yet extinct, but close
In addition to the prospect of returning the recent dead, the technologies developed for de-extinction may also come to the rescue of currently living (extant) but endangered animals.
For those close to the edge of extinction, one of the major problems hindering conservation is a lack of genetic diversity within surviving populations. Oliver Ryder, director of genetics at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation and Research, said that cryo-preserved tissues may be used to improve the genetic variability and reproductive vigour of the critically endangered Northern White Rhino.
With many of our charismatic extant creatures sharing the same crisis, the development of these tools could be a blessing.
Growing interest and support for de-extinction would be particularly beneficial to natural history museums collections. The bones, soft tissue samples and skins collected from distinct populations of species could provide a diverse databank of DNA for de-extinction programs.
But de-extinction is a field that is controversial in the public eye, and at times, among scientific peers. David Burney, Professor of Conservation Paleobiology at Hawaii’s National Tropical Botanical Garden, has said that if de-extinction is technically possible, then it’s inevitable, so it might as well be embraced. That view is not an argument with unanimous support.
The most common arguments against de-extinction hail from conservationists themselves. De-extinction is an expensive process and the concern is that the limited resources allocated to the conservation of living organisms may be diverted to pay for de-extinction research.
While the cost of gene sequencing and the molecular techniques have been decreasing rapidly, these are not the only costs in implementing de-extinction. Re-introducing and managing small populations of animals, managing captive breeding and providing suitable habitat will be expensive. So too will be closely monitoring populations, protecting them from the causes of their initial extinction and studying the effect of re-introduced species.
So, if evenly pitted against its currently employed counterparts for conservation management, how will de-extinction fare and how will we predict the potential effectiveness of a novel method?
One likely analogue is “rewilding”, the process of replacing extinct species with ecological analogues from other environments, for example, re-introducing Tasmanian Devils onto the Australian mainland.
Previous attempts have been met with controversy. The question of conserving species compared with preserving ecosystem functionality is one that perhaps deserves more considered public debate than it has received.
Perhaps returning the missing species, even if it went extinct long before living memory, would face the same critique. Not everyone is in favour of wild animals in their backyard, whether back from extinction or not.
Back from the dead but not the right home
But what of the other side of the coin? What if we resurrect species that belonged in ecosystems that no longer exist?
Pleistocene Park, in northern Siberia, is an experiment to show that over-hunting by humans caused both the animals – including mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, bison, horses, musk oxen, elk, saiga and yaks – and their Pleistocene habitats to vanish from the region.
Through grazing experiments, scientists are attempting to restore the ecosystem to what it was more than 10,000 years ago. But the missing density of herbivorous animals (such as the extinct mammoths) is said to be choking the tundra with moss.
If human alteration of the environment has been the main cause of extinctions over the last 1,000 years, how are we going to give it back? And which creatures that have adapted to the new landscape will we sacrifice to do so?
Given there have been successions of changing landscapes, each with its own biota, which one will we reinstate? If we were not able to protect these environments and the creatures that inhabited them in the past, why do we think we could do it now?
If we bring them back before we have halted our current rate of extinction, will we simply be dooming them to a second extinction event, a title currently only held by the Pyrenean Ibex?
Archer, a keen supporter of de-extinction, raised this point in his TEDx talk in relation to the Tasmanian Tiger:
So, could we put it back? Yes. Is that all we would do? And this is an interesting question. Sometimes, you might be able to put it back, but is that the safest way to make sure it never goes extinct again? And I don’t think so.
I think gradually, as we see species all around the world, it’s kind of a mantra, that wildlife is increasingly not safe in the wild – we’d love to think it is, but we know it isn’t – we need other parallel strategies coming online.
Among all the questions, one thing seems clear: the application of de-extinction will need to be considered carefully on a case-by-case basis, with both forethought and public support.
For now the argument that de-extinction will be a boost to the resources of the conservation movement in the long term, rather than a drain on its already limited funds, is based on a mix of genuine hope and economic speculation.
It isn’t yet known if funding will follow excitement, or if the public will support the return of real past ecosystems.
Unlike some, we don’t believe that technical possibility necessitates inevitability, and so it is time to give some serious thought to de-extinction, when and why it could be applied, and to the conservation of the environment we still have. There is a long way to go before we consider a real Jurassic Park.