Species resurrection: coming soon to an ecosystem near you

What is De-extinction?

Can we resurrect dinosaurs by mixing some DNA samples with frog DNA like in Jurassic Park?
– Not quite.
BUT recent advances in technology may allow us to use DNA from more recently extinct animals and use a related modern animal as a surrogate mother (See figure 1).

 

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Figure 1: an illustration of the role of a surrogate mother in resurrecting an animal

Global biodiversity loss is already a problem, so to keep ecosystems functioning and providing all the ecosystem services we enjoy (see figure 2) conservation strategies are being used to restore & maintain ecosystem biodiversity (To find out more about Ecosystem services check out a website all about them). De-extinction would broaden the list of species we can reintroduce where needed.

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Figure 2: Ecosystem services that all life receives from its environment

Pleistocene Park!

In Northern Siberia a project is aiming to restore a whole ecosystem that was lost after the last Ice Age (~10,000 years ago). Currently Siberia is much mossier and less grassy than it used to be. Without large populations of herbivores to graze intensely, productivity and soil fertility are reduced, allowing moss and shrubs to outcompete grass.

The mammoth-tundra steppe is more productive, holds more carbon and will host a higher density of megafauna than the current landscape. Pleistocene Park is bringing back the high densities of herbivores to encourage grasslands to return, and maybe one day the mammoth and woolly rhino could be brought back.

These species have been gone ages. What good will they do now?

Some of the most effective conservation projects have involved re-locating species to where they have been wiped out in the past, restoring a lost driver of ecosystem processes.
Why would we want to restore ecosystem processes we haven’t had on Earth for several thousand years? – These ecosystem processes are not necessarily lost, it’s just that the animals that are so good at maintaining them have gone. In some cases this might be because humans hunted them all to extinction, or because humans changed that landscape so much that the animals we want back weren’t able to survive there anymore.

There is a lot of uncertainty and risk involved in bringing species back from extinction

Re-introduced animals have had no time to adapt to the changes in their environment and will have a very low intra-species diversity (avoiding inbreeding will be tricky).
Resurrected species might not do what we expect and become a problem in their environment, or will be the target of trophy hunting. Such an expensive project will take away valuable resources from other very important conservation efforts, like saving species and ecosystems that are currently endangered.

De-extinction could be another useful contribution to our restoration efforts, but there is a lot we don’t understand about the process. Projects like Pleistocene Park provide a case study for us to compare new projects to and something to learn from. Considering this, de-extinction should be low priority when choosing a candidate for reintroductions. We should be spending our efforts instead on creating better guidelines for reintroduction.

 

By Chris

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