What if Extinction Isn't Forever?

Stacy Small-Lorenz

Image by Tyler Ingram/Flickr

Which of the following have scientists actually accomplished?

  • Bringing a woolly mammoth to life using DNA extracted from remains buried in the Arctic tundra;
  • Releasing a flock of once-extinct Passenger Pigeons into Washington DC’s Rock Creek Park; or
  • From a pickled specimen, cloning embryos of the extinct gastric-brooding frog, which gave birth by hiccupping baby frogs from its mouth. 

The answer is c, but both a and b are in the works, albeit in the very early stages.

 ”De-extinction” is the science of using genetic material and advanced reproductive technologies to revive extinct species like the Passenger Pigeon and the woolly mammoth. It’s been getting a lot of buzz, from the New York Times  to the cover story of the April issue of National Geographic,  to a recent TEDx conference here in Washington, DC that I attended.

For a conservation scientist, the prospect of “de-extinction” provokes both wonder and worry. Yes, I would love to witness a flock of passenger pigeons flying overhead as much as the next birder. But the idea immediately raises a host of concerns for those interested in the fate of endangered species.  This was once the most abundant bird species in North America, numbering in the billions, and it was obliterated in just about 40 years. 

I have to wonder if humanity is ready to welcome an extinct pigeon back from the dead while we’re still driving species down the path of extinction around the globe. We have to ask on a case-by-case basis whether our values, laws, policies and land use practices have changed enough to support the re-introduction of species that mankind drove extinct in the first place.  It’s such a new topic that the Endangered Species Act doesn’t really have much to say about “de-extinguished” species.

You could argue that if technology helped drive species extinct, why not use it to bring them back?  We could even learn a lot along the way about genetics that might be useful for rescuing endangered species populations. Also, some conservationists think that, hypothetically, restoring recently extinct keystone species to their original habitats could make sense in the long run, if it helps to maintain ecosystems.

But even if science develops the tools to bring extinct species back to life, it would have to proceed with great caution if releasing them to the wild. Revived species would likely face a whole new world of competitors, predators, and changed habitats on top of the old threats, like human persecution. They could also create problems, becoming disease vectors or causing other unanticipated ecosystem imbalances.

Finally, considering the potential cost of bringing back even one extinct individual, let alone entire self-sustaining populations, we should think very hard about diverting scarce conservation dollars that are needed to prevent future species extinctions and, in the process, undermining the urgency of the message that “extinction is forever,” which still holds true to this day. 

But no matter what, don’t hold your breath for a Jurassic Park-style dinosaur revival.  While genetic research has made incredible advances, it’s still pretty hard to bring stone to life.  

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