Monday, 1 February 2010

Bringing back extinct species – a mammoth undertaking

Thylacines roaming free in the forests of Tasmania, herds of aurochs and tarpans running in the lowlands of northern Europe, and a Barbary lion pouncing on a herd of red deer in the Atlas Mountains. A typical wildlife scenery on Earth before the humans ruled it.

The extinction of a species represents the saddest moment in the conservation-minded human. Nowadays, all conservation projects implemented in every corner of the world have the same overarching vision: to reduce the rate of extinction and secure the survival of as many species as possible. Extinct species stay in the backyard of history to remind us of our past mistakes and to stop us doing similar ones in the future.

Yet, the chance is there for us to reverse the wheel of history and make up for those mistakes. The above scenario might not be that far from happening in the present day, after all.

The issue of “reviving species” has received growing attention in the past decades. Many scientists around the world have been involved in projects aiming to bring extinct animals back to life. This “Jurassic park”-approach has evolved in two main directions, namely reviving through selective breeding and reviving through cloning.
It was the 1920s when the two German brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck initiated selective breeding programmes for bringing back two of the most charismatic herbivores that had once roamed Europe: the aurochs (Bos primigenius), last seen in Poland’s forests in 1627, and the tarpan (Equus ferus) the last individual of which died out in 1909 ( These are the wild ancestors of the present cattle and horse. The latter have lost their “wild traits” through millennia of domestication and selective breeding by humans for specific purposes and needs. The approach used by the Heck brothers is in theory, the reverse process of domestication, the so called “breeding back”, where domestic individuals that carry wild traits and features are bred together to enhance the species’ wild features. The resulting animals seen today in some natural reserves and zoos throughout Europe are strikingly similar to the extinct wild species.

Similar and more recent attempts of breeding back animals that are phenotypically similar to extinct relatives involve the Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo), the last of which was shot in Morocco in 1922 and the Quagga (Equus quagga quagga), a subspecies of the Plains zebra that lived in southern Africa up to the 1870s. Some Barbary lions survived in captivity as property of the Sultan of Morocco, however this was largely unknown to the world up to the 1970 and the subspecies was assumed as extinct. The remaining lions in Morocco had similar features with the descriptions of extinct Barbary lions. Nowadays there are less than 100 lions in captivity dispersed in zoological gardens in Europe, North America and Morocco and a project undertaken by Preservation Station Inc. ( promotes the selective breeding of remaining individuals for preserving the genetic distinctiveness of the Barbary lion.
Attempts to breed back the quagga have initiated in the late 1980 by using individuals of Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchelli). Quaggas, unlike other subspecies of the Plain’s zebra, lack the presence of stripes at the rump. In the reconstruction programme animals that display this trait are selectively bred to reconstruct the phenotype of the extinct subspecies (

Many extinct animals do not survive in domesticated form nor have close relatives from which they can be reconstructed. However, for some of them we have left genetic material that could be used to revive animals through cloning. The issue of cloning brings together many controversies and has been in the centre of hot debates between scientists for many years now. In spite of this, there are current projects that aim to revive extinct species such as the Thylacine and the Pyrenean ibex through cloning.

The Tylacine, or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was last seen in 1936 and since 1999 a cloning project has been undertaken by the Australian Museum in Sydney ( however its success has been limited due to lack of technological advancements and the complexities arising from using another species as a host.
Similar cloning attempts have been implemented to resurrect the recently extinct Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) in Spain by using domestic goats as surrogates. The first cloned ibex and the first extinct animal resurrected through cloning was born in January 2009 (, however the newborn died after 7 minutes due to respiratory problems possibly directly related to the cloning process.

Besides the hope and enthusiasm that might arise from the above cases there are still many controversies around the revival of extinct animals. There are many questions in need of answers in this delicate process before we can proceed with a clear vision for the future. Which are the animals that we can bring back? Are they going to fit in nowadays landscapes? Is it worth trying to bring back species when we still can’t secure the survival of the existing ones?
These uncertainties have been the cause hot debates between scientists around this issue. However, the process of reviving species represents the potential of humans for positive change. If we can show that we can reverse extinction then we can change the human mindset towards positive change and evoke greater hope for the future of our planet.

Aleksander Trajce

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


  1. I have to disagree with you Alex!

    My views are written up (in perhaps a less polite manner) at:

    With the famous Myers et al. Hotspots approach it is more than clear that there is very limited funding for conservation and it needs to be prioritised. You could argue that the funding for such 'bring back extinct species' projects come from different sources and will not overlap with conservation funding, but I'm not sure if that really holds true. Especially if this resurrection process takes off, conservation will keep losing more money to these projects. Given a choice people would much rather pay to see a mammoth again than to protect Julien's ugly blobfish.

    The next problem is values. Why are we brining these species back? Is it simply because we are excited by these charismatic megafauna or are really concerned about extinction across the spectrum and trying to restore balance to the world. If it the latter then how come we don't have terms like 'charismatic microfauna' in our vocabulary? Arguably the ants and the bees are infinitely more important to an ecosystem than elephants and tigers. But don't even really know what microfauna went extinct and when. Let alone try to re-create these species.

    I would go one step further and argue that this 're-creation' process has nothing to do with conservation at all. It only one more step in human beings showing off our supremacy and dominating nature.

    If push comes to shove even the lynx will not be able to compete with mammoths for funding! You will have to wait till they all go extinct before you can start the next conservation project. There will be absolutely no motivation to keep species alive if we can just bring them back later.

    So in a nutshell, I think playing God is a really bad idea!

  2. Tarsh aren't we already playing god?? Through our actions (beneficial or detrimental) we are determining which species survives and which species doesn't. By prioritizing (and thus allocating more money and attention) to tiger conservation projects over blobfish conservation projects we are in a way shaping the composition of the world's future wildlife population. bringing back extinct species is just another way of playing god or simply fulfulling our duty of "superior" (as more evolved) species...

  3. Tarsh,
    First of all I have a real problem with the way the "prioritization" approach is advertised in conservation (as seen represented in the Myers hotspots). There is no doubt that our planet is faced with major environmental concerns like climate change, depletion of fossil fuels and disruption of the carbon cycle, loss of natural habitats due to expanding agriculture and increase of human population. It is undoubtedly needed that efforts into addressing these problems should be hearty and immediate and they should be in the priority agenda of every conservationist.
    However this does not mean that until we see these problems solved, we have to sit back and forget about all the other "little" problems. Following the "prioritization" approach and the logic you are proposing we might as well stop trying to save tigers from extinction and direct all that money to efforts in reducing climate change. In fact, we might as well stop every seemingly stupid conservation project in the world that aims saving toads, flowers, elephants, whales or any other species, because there are other major problems like climate change or human consumerism and unless we solve these there is not really a point in solving the former. I’m not quite sure if that’s the way to go forward in conservation.
    If there is the chance for us to do some things right than why not do them? Because we need to concentrate monetary resources into bigger problems? Conservation is value-driven and not everyone who funds it (general people), pays for the same reasons that we (conservationists) might think are worth putting money in. Thomas Kaplan - an American billionaire - is willing to pay millions of dollars to secure the survival of four "big cats" (lions, tigers, jaguars and snow leopards), but he might not be the same interested in giving the same amount of money for climate change issues. Why? Because he values big cats most. So are we to say "NO" to his money because they don't fit our "priorities" or is it probably better we take that money and try save big cats, by ultimately doing something right and good for conservation? Well, I opt for the second.
    Similarly might be the case that a rich Japanese guy named Kazutoshi Kobayashi wants to have a mammoth grazing in his backyard and he is willing to pay 10 million dollars for it. He is never going to give that money for the climate change issue but instead, he is going to do everything he can into bringing a mammoth back to life no matter what me and you say about etiquette, values or prioritization. So why not combine our interests with his and aim to do this thing in the benefit of conservation rather than just sit back and criticize him with our all mighty climate change or whatever conservation prioritization arguments?
    It is not the tiger's fault that climate change is happening; therefore we should not doom its existence for the sake of solving climate change. Similarly, it wasn't the quagga's fault that we started exploiting our fossil fuels at an unbelievable rate, it was OUR fault, and we should not halt any attempt into bringing it back if there is even the slightest chance for it to happen.
    This is not playing God, its just paying for our past mistakes.
    Rather than prioritizing one problem over the other we should seek how to increase the benefits that derive from solving them together. Who knows, maybe showing to the world that we can make a mammoth walk back to earth will positively inspire even the most pessimistic people for the fate of the Earth. In reviving species we show the true potential of humans for achieving incredible things. And if this helps to change the existing human mindset and increase the confidence in ourselves for positive changes, it means that will ultimately help solving the environmental crisis and distance us from the "powerless to change" and "gloom and doom" scenarios that we like so much to think about.

  4. Powerful arguments there Alex, but I’m not yet ready let the matter rest!I think I agree with you that we need to also work on the smaller issues in parallel. We cannot let all the beautiful animals die while we sit back (possibly at our desks) and work on the larger issues. Undoubtedly we must also prevent our dear charismatic mega fauna from going extinct while we can. Prioritization surely has its problems (which has been amply highlight through the course) and is not by any stretch an end in itself.
    I think my problem is more that conservation is more about the ’seemingly stupid conservation projects’ and less about the real problems. All of us want to save tigers and pandas, but not waste less food, use less energy, fly less or live better lives. Because in doing the first society around us gives us some respect, we feel good about ourselves, we become high profile ‘conservationists’ and wield some amount of power. We can go jet setting around the world because we are working to save it. If we chose to keep a low profile – low carbon, ’simple’ lives that are in sync with nature – our personal commitment to change goes unnoticed by the wider society, and we no longer feel good about what we are doing. So we rationalise our choices and claim we need to deal with the immediate emergency, and as it was pointed out in class the other day, we can ‘let ECM deal with the other problems’. We work solely on emergency relief while we let someone else deal with the cancer.
    If the cancer was being treated it would be a whole different matter. But all evidence shows its not. We are now at 550 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. Our world leaders make hollow and empty claims to reduce it to 350 so as to prevent a rise of more than 2 degrees. Its never going to happen. And lets not fool ourselves, we are the ones contributing to that CO2.
    Again we may rationalise it by saying we emit less than thousands (or perhaps even millions) of people who live much more carbon intensive lives. But lets not forget that we emit much more than billions who live much less carbon intensive lives. The doom and gloom is very real, whether we choose to accept it or not.
    So extending the argument of prioritisation – if Tiger conservation cannot align itself with the bigger and more serious issues my personal conviction would be yes, we need to let the beautiful cats die out. Carbon intensive tiger conservation is only putting off their extinction and giving us a false sense of security. The problem with Tiger conservation is exactly the Thomas Kaplan and World Bank (or Kazutoshi Kobayashi) type of approach. Throw a lot of money at the tigers and set up artificial life support systems. Move the people out, build them houses and help them get jobs in the cities. Pump more money into the life support one side and help the cancer flourish on the other side. They can’t admit there is a cancer, because that would imply that they are the problem.
    If we could all combine our efforts and work towards the same goal it would be great. But I believe the efforts are largely at odds with each other, and there can be no question of combining them.
    Undoubtedly its not the tiger (or blobfish) or quagga’s fault that they are in the mess they are in. It is completely our fault. But before trying to reverse it shouldn’t we try to identify what the root cause of the problem is and then try to rectify that? We talk so much about climate change, but yet we do nothing to use less fossil fuel.
    Again, I do believe it is a largely doom and gloom story. We are not powerless to change at all, but the problem is only that we choose only to do what is easy for us. To show off the “true potential of humans for achieving incredible things” while we continue to ignore the larger problems.
    Tarsh Thekaekara