to revive or not to revive

To Revive or Not to Revive?

As science advances, researchers find themselves facing ethical questions about de-extinction

Photo from True Wild Life
Photo from True Wild Life

Up until the 1800’s in North America is was common to have the sun blocked from the sky for hours as a flock of passenger pigeons flew over-head. A single flock could be up to one mile wide and 400 miles long and contain over 3.5 billion birds. On September 1, 1914, the very last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

The passenger pigeon was hunted for its meat, and could be caught by the tens of thousands with casting nets. It was used by the settling Europeans as cheap food for slaves.

In less than a century, humans wiped out one of the largest bird colonies in the world, and now, we finally have a chance bring back the passenger pigeon.

Through cloning non-extinct animals, scientists have discovered that if the genome of a species, living or dead, can be mapped, then it’s DNA can be placed into a stem cell, and an animal can be grown.

We will not be seeing Jurassic Park anytime soon, as there is no DNA left from dinosaurs to reconstruct the genome, but we now have the capability to bring back species such as saber-toothed cats, woolly mammoths and even the late tasmanian tiger.

The question now is, should we?

Steward Brand, writer and co-founder of The Long Now Foundation, is an adamant supporter of, what has been coined, de-extinction. When contacted for an interview, Brand encouraged those hoping to learn more about de-extinction to visit his website, www.longnow.org. There can be found a list of ‘candidate species,’ such as the famed passenger pigeon, the dodo bird, the Chinese river dolphin and even some more fantastical species like the woolly mammoth, the mastodon, the giant moa and the Tasmanian tiger.

The giant moa was a bird that lived in New Zealand before the 1500s and stood almost 8-feet tall. It went extinct due to the Polynesian settler’s who hunter the moa for food. The moa was an impressive bird, whose size can be attributed to the fact that there were no mammalian predators in New Zealand and the moa was able to evolve unimpeded by predation for over 40,000 years.

Choosing which animals to ‘revive’ is much more complicated than choosing a nine foot tall bird because it would look cool. Proper revival candidates must be sorely missed in its ecosystem.

This is one of the reasons animals like the woolly mammoth and the mastodon are looked at as candidates for revival. These large elephantine creatures were responsible for the creation of lush grasslands in their respective home-lands. The mastodon were native to North America and the woolly mammoths hail from Eurasia.

Dr. Ron Wetherington, anthropology professor at SMU said, “bringing back the mammoth—or the American mastodon—would certainly be scientifically productive. Since Cuvier’s time we’ve tried to reconstruct the lineages of these two fossil forms and connect them to the current two elephant species—the Indian and the African. The genomes would help in this goal immensely.”

Dr. Wetherington addresses a second point on Brand’s list of criteria, will the species help to answer scientific questions. Being able to actively study these animals that we have been only guessing about for centuries could lead to links between similar animals that are found continents apart.

However, many conservationists fear that the excitement bringing back extinct species would create could be a distraction from those species that need our attention now.

Lydia O’Donoghue, a 23-year-old environmental biology student at University College London in London, England, says, “as a conservation biologist I was a little skeptical about the whole concept of de-extinction… I think as long as it doesn’t detract from current efforts to conserve endangered species, then bringing money into conservation from new funding avenues is a good thing.”

If we can’t keep our current species of elephant from going extinct, why should we bring back a different species, some scientists argue. The ivory trade has already taken 62 percent of the remaining African elephants between the years 2002 and 2011, and we can only imagine what lengths poachers would go to for mammoth ivory.

Dr. Jon Wise, a biology professor at SMU elaborated, saying that “tt will also likely be very expensive and time consuming to bring back a few individuals of any given species, to the point where perhaps the resources would be better spent on trying to save some of the endangered species that are currently in trouble.”

Scientists, like Mrinalini Watsa, a field biologist working at a field site studying primates in Peru, are also concerned with the well-being of the animals that will be created. “How many failed attempts will it require to bring a viable mammoth back to life? How many animals will be born with defects due to imperfect DNA preservation? How tempted will we be to fix little things about them that we think might need fixing – suppressing the cancer causing gene in the Tasmanian tiger is one thing, but what else might we be tempted to fix?”

With between 0.01 percent and 0.1 percent of all the species on Earth going extinct each year, which means that if there are 100,000,000 species that 10,000 species go extinct each year, are we obligated to bring these animals back from the grave? Or is it our duty as citizens of this planet to take care of the animals that are left?

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