Imagine a living mammoth, flesh and bone, once again lumbering across the plains, rejoining life on earth in the 21st century. Despite having gone extinct thousands of years ago, some scientists of our time are seriously considering the possibility of resurrecting this long-absent creature, along with many other lost species of the past. While these lofty aspirations are well-intentioned, is this where we should be focusing our energies, throwing down massive sums of money to bring back species when the species we already have are struggling to survive on a planet of limited resources and rapid human expansion?
With remarkable advances in genetic engineering and biotechnology, focusing on applications of DNA sequencing methods and manipulation of stem cells, a nonprofit initiative called Revive & Restore is looking at the mammoth, passenger pigeon, ivory-billed woodpecker, wooly rhinoceros, and the dodo as possible candidates for “de-extinction” efforts.
Thanks to meticulous preservation of museum specimens and fossils, which contain the ancient DNA blueprint of extinct species, the animal’s genome–their genetic material–extracted from these samples can be analyzed, reconstructed and transferred into the genetic sequence of a currently living relative most closely related to the extinct, effectually restoring a lost species back to life.
According to Revive & Restore, the ultimate goal is to “restore them to their former home in the wild.” While this is an honorable intention, first off, their former home is nothing like it used to be, that’s just a fact. And my question is, are the realities of what our species and environments are currently facing something that we need to throw more species into? Since we won’t be reintroducing them to the conditions they once knew, but rather to lands that have been reformed to fit human needs, and to potentially plop something like a herd of woolly mammoth, which require large expanses of territory, onto are much more limited from the vast plains of past eras.
While the technological advances we’ve made to be able to look seriously into this as a reality are admirable, does it mean we should blindly move forward with it and put all of this effort and funding into restoring species while extant species (those currently in existence) are already struggling on a planet that is overrun with humans encroachment into wild spaces and impacts of human-accelerated climate change reaching the point where habitats and ecological balances are changing for the worse and intrusion of invasive species and pollution taint our planet’s fragile ecosystems.
What if bringing back species only cause species we have now to go extinct?
In a paper published in Nature’s Nature Ecology & Evolution journal, the overwhelming consensus was that restoring extinct species is invariably unfavorable when it comes to assessing cost and benefit to biodiversity. The research aims to predict how extant threatened species might be impacted by the de-extinction of species and it was determined that even the most optimistic outlook revealed net biodiversity loss through predictive analogues. The potential sacrifice of extant species in the name of resurrection leads these and other researchers to advise stronger consideration before further actions are taken to pursue this science fiction-like resurrection fantasy that is becoming a reality.
“If you have the millions of dollars it would take to resurrect a species and choose to do that, you are making an ethical decision to bring one species back and let several others go extinct. It would be one step forward, and three to eight steps back.” Dr. Joseph Bennett, Carleton University in Ontario
And just like the threatened species of today, long term intensive conservation management–the funding of which would ultimately be placed under the responsibility of the government, unless private agencies moved to carry this out–would be essential to ensure the survival of the resurrected populations. Conservation of extant species is already mightily underfunded so, no matter where the money comes from to support bringing back extinct species, it is something like salt in the wound already borne by the currently living, if you ask me.
It’s almost like this is a bandaid fix. We’re not getting to the root of the problem. We’re quite potentially just bringing species back to an existence where the very same threats (and now even more) that made them extinct in the first place, persist.
What’s your opinion on the matter? Leave a comment!
Tags: biodiversity, biotechnology, climate change, conservation, DNA, dodo, ecological balance, endangered, ethics, extinction, genetic material, ivory-billed woodpecker, mammoth, species management, technological advances, threatened species