In one tweet… De-extinction, fast becoming reality, has the power to save species, shape evolution and sculpt the future of life on our planet.
2 What’s the point of de-extinction? There are lots of good reasons to bring back extinct animals. All animals perform important roles in the ecosystems they live in, so when lost species are returned, so too are the ‘jobs’ they once performed. Woolly mammoths, for example, were gardeners. They knocked down saplings, ate grass and fertilised the ground via their nutrient-rich dung. But when they disappeared, the gardening stopped, biodiversity plummeted and the lush mammoth steppe was replaced by species-poor tundra. Studies suggest that if large grazers were returned to the far north, biodiversity would increase again.
It could be the same for other deextinct animals, too. De-extinction provides a means to enhance biodiversity and help restore the health of ailing ecosystems. It could be a conservation tool, and by choosing to bring back animals that are genetically unique – like the gastric-brooding frog or the Tasmanian tiger (a stripy, pouched, dog-like marsupial also known as the thylacine) – we could replace not just twigs, but entire branches on the tree of life.
Then there are the benefits that humans could glean. The gastricbrooding frog somehow converted its stomach into a makeshift womb. It stopped producing stomach acid so it didn’t digest its young. If scientists could figure out the changes involved in this, it could lead to treatments for stomach ulcers or could help people recovering from stomach surgery.
Every day, between 30 and 150 species disappear from the face of our planet, and studies reveal that extinction rates today are 1,000 times higher than they were during prehuman times. We live in a time of mass extinction, and de-extinction has been proposed as a key way to undo some of that harm. To reverse extinction would undoubtedly be a huge moment for the fields of biology and conservation, and a feat that could motivate future generations of scientists and wildlife defenders.
We could use DNA from preserved mammoths to create elephants with mammoth-like qualities
Where would the animals live? De-extinction is a process that begins with creating a single animal in the lab and then ends, many years later, with the release and survival of sustainable populations in the wild.
Ecosystems are fluid, dynamic entities – they change quickly. But if a species has gone extinct recently, there is a chance it could be returned to its original ecosystem. The Tasmanian tiger is thought to have gone extinct 80 years ago, but in that time, its native woodland has stayed more or less the same – this de-extinct species could potentially ‘go home’. A de-extinct Christmas Island rat, however, would not be so lucky. Since its extinction over 100 years ago, Christmas Island has become riddled with invasive species that would likely pose a problem. In this case,
a suitable alternative habitat would have to be found.
What is the ideal candidate for de-extinction? It may seem an odd thing to say, but one of the ideal de-extinction candidates could be an animal that is actually still alive… just. There are only three northern white rhinos left alive on the planet: a grandfather, a mother and a daughter, who spend their days at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. But they are too old, too ill and too related to breed naturally.
So the northern white rhino is ‘functionally extinct’: the ghost of a magnificent species that once manicured the diverse African grasslands on which so many other species depend. Saving it counts as an
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