Scientists highlight the resurrection of extinct animals as both a strong possibility and a major potential conservation

Dec 24, 2013
Thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. Credit: E.J. Keller Baker

(Phys.org) —Scientists from across the world have "scanned the horizon" in order to identify potentially significant medium and long-term threats to conservation efforts.

Resurrection of several , the increasingly accelerated loss of wild rhinoceroses and a disastrous financial response to unburnable carbon are just some future global conservation issues flagged up in this year's Horizon Scan, recently published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Professor William Sutherland and Dr Mark Spalding are amongst the 18 scientists who took part in this year's Horizon Scan, seeking to identify potential future conservation issues in order to reduce the "probability of sudden confrontation with major social or environmental changes".

One such plausible issue is the resurrection or re-construction of extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth, or the thylacine (a carnivorous marsupial). However, though there may be many benefits to the restoration of these animals, such a high-profile project could lead to attention and resources being diverted from attempts to thwart current threats to non-extinct species' survival.

Professor Sutherland said 'There has been discussion of this idea for some time but it is now looking more practical and the idea is being taken seriously. A key issues is whether this is really a conservation priority'.

Though the last died around 4000 years ago, methods such as back-breeding, cloning and genetic engineering may lead to their resurrection. Not only could these , and others such as the thylacine and the passenger pigeon, be re-constructed and returned to their native environments, they could potentially be used to "provide tools for outreach and education".

However, though this would be a conservational triumph, it could also hamper efforts to protect animals that are currently facing extinction, as both attention and resources would be diverted from preserving existing species and their habitats. Furthermore, there has not been any investigation into the "viability, ethics and safety of releasing resurrected species", nor the effect their presence may have on indigenous flora and fauna.

Another potential conservational issue identified by the Horizon Scan further highlights the problems facing species today. The loss of wild rhinoceroses and elephants is set to reaccelerate within the next few years, partially stimulated by a growing desire for ivory and horn.

In 2013, it is estimated that over 600 rhinoceroses were poached for their horn in South Africa alone, out of a total global population of less than 26,000. Though an increased human population and proximity to growing infrastructure is partially responsible, organised crime syndicates and intensive hunting carry the weight of the blame. In the Asian countries that use it, rhinoceros horn is more expensive than gold. Demand for the precious horn is ever increasing, resulting in elevated levels of poaching. If attention and resources are diverted from the protection of these majestic animals, we may have yet more candidates for resurrection in the future.

Altogether, this group of scientists identified the top 15 potential conservation issues (out of an initial group of 81 issues). In addition to the above topics, extensive land loss in southeast Asia from subsidence of peatlands, carbon solar cells as an alternative source of renewable energy, and an emerging fungal disease amongst snakes, have also been voted as plausible threats that need to be stopped before they can be realised.

Explore further: Scientists identify top conservation threats and opportunities

More information: William J. Sutherland, Rosalind Aveling, Thomas M. Brooks, Mick Clout, Lynn V. Dicks, Liz Fellman, Erica Fleishman, David W. Gibbons, Brandon Keim, Fiona Lickorish, Kathryn A. Monk, Diana Mortimer, Lloyd S. Peck, Jules Pretty, Johan Rockström, Jon Paul Rodríguez, Rebecca K. Smith, Mark D. Spalding, Femke H. Tonneijck, Andrew R. Watkinson, "A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2014," Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 29, Issue 1, January 2014, Pages 15-22, ISSN 0169-5347, dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2013.11.004.

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User comments : 7

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tadchem
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 24, 2013
OK. We resurrect a once-extinct species from preserved material. We now have a living specimen of a species with a genetic diversity of zero:
Does the individual accurately represent the species or is there some unnoticed genetic anomaly present? and how would we tell?
What next? Clones? Parthenogenesis?
How does the species acquire non-instinctive social structure?
How do we prevent ecstatic biologists from leaping to erroneous conclusions?
Until these questions are addressed, we would only have a living freak.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (6) Dec 24, 2013

OK. We resurrect a once-extinct species from preserved material. We now have a living specimen of a species with a genetic diversity of zero:
De-extinction wiki
"Proposed targets for cloning include the mammoth, thylacine, and Pyrenean Ibex. For such a program to succeed, a sufficient number of individuals would have to be cloned, from the DNA of different individuals (in the case of sexually reproducing organisms) to create a viable population."
Does the individual accurately represent the species or is there some unnoticed genetic anomaly present? and how would we tell?
How important do you think it would be for one species or another? How much behavior of a particular species is innate and how much is learned?
How do we prevent ecstatic biologists from leaping to erroneous conclusions?
-You mean like you're doing ?
Sinister1812
5 / 5 (1) Dec 24, 2013
OK. We resurrect a once-extinct species from preserved material. We now have a living specimen of a species with a genetic diversity of zero:


So, all those museum specimens don't count as genetic diversity? If they never try it, they will never know if it's even possible. Also, there's rumours it might still exist, with a few sightings in remote areas.
stripeless_zebra
5 / 5 (4) Dec 25, 2013
I would like to see Neanderthals inhabiting the caves of Europe again:)
Returners
1 / 5 (1) Dec 27, 2013
You know, they can't keep poachers from killing rhinos and elephants in Africa, how do you plan to keep people from killing woolly mammoths if they are revive? I wasn't aware they were alive that recently anyway. I thought it was commonly reported that they died out ten thousand years ago or so? Where would you release a land animal that big anyway, and why? If a herd of them in some distant future decided they wanted to rampage through town, the only thing you could do with them is either kill them, or leave town.

There are other, much more practical things to do with cloning and GM, such as engineering non-transgenic fish, cattle, or crops so that they grow more efficiently. I don't mean a fish that eats twice as much and grows twice as much either. I mean something that eats the same, and grows a few percent faster. That would be revolutionary due to true savings on cost of growing food. I don't mean using eel dna either. I mean recombining dna within the same species.
Sinister1812
not rated yet Dec 28, 2013
Where would you release a land animal that big anyway, and why?


Probably in Siberia, where they used to live. Not many towns or cities there, I would imagine. But I get your point about poaching.. :/
Returners
1 / 5 (1) Dec 28, 2013
Why resurrect something that was extinct before the Pyramids were made?

Just leave them in the history books and museums where they belong, along with dinosaurs and trilobites.

We don't plan on colonizing the ice-moon Hoth, from Star Wars, any time soon, so there isn't much practical need of any sort, and they'd just be another burden of conservation for governments to have to fork out millions of dollars to maintain some habitat for them.

None of that is our responsibility, nor should it be.

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