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8.8: Is De-extinction a Solution?

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  • One of the more interesting conservation debates to have emerged in recent years involve efforts to reverse extinction. This field, known as de-extinction or resurrection biology aims to revive extinct species, and eventually to reintroduce viable populations to their original locations (Seddon, 2017). One possible method, called “breeding back”, aims to produce individuals genetically similar to an extinct species by selective breeding of extant species that carry genetic material of their extinct relatives. This is the main method currently being used to revive the aurochs (Bos primigenius, EX), the ancestor of today’s domestic cattle (Stokstad, 2015). Other “breeding back” projects place less emphasis on genetics and more on morphology, by selectively breeding individuals with certain traits to produce individuals that visually appear similar to the extinct species. Such is the case at The Quagga Project, where selectively breeding of plains zebras (Equus quagga, NT) with quagga-like characteristics (reduced striping and brown hues) are resulting in animals (Figure 8.11) that look increasingly like extinct quaggas (Harley et al., 2009).

    Fig_8.11_QuaggaProject.jpg
    Figure 8.11 Not extinct anymore? A selective breeding program in South Africa has raised several plain’s zebras that closely resemble the extinct quagga. The progress from one generation to the next can be seen in this photo, with the adults showing reduced striping, and the foal showing brown hues. Photograph by The Quagga Project, CC BY 4.0.

    The second popular method used for de-extinction is cloning. This involves the transfer of viable genetic material from an extinct species to the eggs (or embryo) of a closely related surrogate mother, who will hopefully give birth to an individual of the extinct species. Cloning has been used in selective breeding of livestock for many years, and plans are also currently underway to use cloning to prevent the extinction of highly threatened species such as the northern white rhinoceros (see Box 11.4). Despite the promise that cloning offers for reviving extant and recently extinct species, cloning species that went extinct many years ago has been more challenging. So far, attempts to clone Spain’s Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica, EX) and Australia’s gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus, EX) have produced individuals that lived for only a few minutes (Ogden, 2014).

    Despite the progress made, de-extinction is one of the most controversial and polarising debates to emerge among conservation biologists in recent years. Proponents of de-extinction hope that the early work described above paves the way for the resurrection of extinct species once the threats that drove them to extinction have been managed. Many resurrection biologists have even started establishing banks where genetic material of threatened species is cryopreserved for future use. They also hope that their work will inspire more people to be interested in science in general and especially in conservation. Protected areas with extinct species may even draw tourists that can fund conservation projects, while reintroductions of once-extinct species can revive lost ecosystem services.

    Bringing a species back from extinction is, however, highly controversial for several reasons. First, there is the argument that the limited funds available for conservation are better spent on species currently facing extinction rather than on projects with possibly insurmountable technical challenges. Others argue that there is no point in spending millions of dollars to bring back an extinct species if we cannot even solve the extinctions drivers that caused the demise of the extinct species in the first place. Conservationists also wonder how the issues facing small populations will be managed, especially early in the process. Many believe that these small compromised populations will simply occupy valuable space in zoos and protected areas that can be better used for protecting extant species. There are also major misgivings about whether the resurrected species will fill the same ecosystem function as before since they may behave differently; in fact, some worry that unpredictable behaviors may introduce new harmful threats to ecosystems. Many conservationists are also worried that the public’s concern for species currently threatened may fade if there is a perception that we can simply revive the species after the last individual died. Lastly, ethical questions are frequently raised about humans essentially trying to “play God” with these “vanity projects”, and the possibility that this entire field will undermine one of the most important foundations of conservation biology—that we need to act now because extinction is forever. Clearly there are some advantages, but also disadvantages, to de-extinction. Most importantly, much research still needs to happen for this to be a viable idea.

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