The success of de-extinction techniques as described in my last blog mark huge advances in biology – but what does it all really mean in term of biodiversity and conservation? Is it time to give up poaching bans and captive breeding programmes in favour of some deep frozen DNA, ready to be brought back into life as and when we need it?
Proponents of de-extinction state that by bringing back these species we will simply being undoing the damage created by human development. Ryan Phelan, executive at Revive and Restore, states that de-extinction has the same aim as conservation. She disagrees with arguments that extinction should be an accepted part of life, by claiming that the majority of extinctions over the past few hundred years have been primarily man-made and not natural at all. Critics argue that even if we can bring extinct species back, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to reinstate them without causing even more problems.
Ecosystems are in a continual state of change, and once something is extinct, other species will quickly take up its place in any system. Essentially any species which has been gone for a long time will re-enter its previous habitat as an invasive species. Invasive species are those which are brought into an environment they are not native to. If they establish, this can be hugely damaging and already costs the UK government over £1.4 billion a year in terms of border security and damage control. Invasive species are considered the second most serious threat to conservation and habitat loss. This could therefore lead to extremely difficult situations – if we reintroduce an extinct species, and it starts to wipe out a current native species, which one is more important in terms of conservation? If we can’t reinstate extinct species, what’s the point of de-extinction? Will this science simply be used to create weird and wonderful zoos?
Ryan Phelan was keen to make clear that no rash decisions would be made throughout the process of both de-extinction and rewilding, and gave the example of the peregrine falcon as the successful reintroduction of a species. Through a captive breeding and reintroduction programme the falcon was reinstated on the east coast of America, and managed to adapt to fit into a more urban environment. However, this does not hold for all species. For example, the Japanese knotweed wreaked havoc when introduced to the UK, as it is able to push up through tarmac, and even knock over brick walls. In terms of the passenger pigeon, if it were to flourish as it once did, would we really want the skies to be blackened with birds again? Would the added sound and sight and smell of huge flocks of birds be welcomed by the average office worker looking out of his or her window? I’m thinking after a while, probably not.
Could this passenger pigeon darken our skies once again? Photo taken at the Extinction: Not the end of the world? Exhibition
On the other hand, the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone national park in America has generally been a success story so far. Although at first there was a high decline in the herbivores the wolves preyed upon, these numbers stabilised, and allowed the whole ecosystem to open up. The suppression of herbivores allowed the floral landscape to open up, as predation pressures meant the prey were forced to be less selective when grazing. This allowed rarer species to flourish, and create new opportunities for other animals such as beavers to expand. Whether it returns to a previous state or becomes an entirely new ecosystem is yet to be seen.
So, perhaps de-extinction could be useful after all in helping biodiversity to flourish in places where keystone species have disappeared, and therefore key in conservation. Furthermore, de-extinction brings about a world of new possibilities in terms of animal behaviour experiments. De-extinct animals could be the key to settling the nature v. nurture debate once and for all, as we observe the behaviour and development of a species with no examples to learn from. Not everyone is convinced however, such as the World Wildlife Fund who believe we should be focussing on saving living endangered species. Does this science make it O.k. to take advantage of Earths provisions as we see fit, safe in the knowledge we can bring back anything we do actually need? Although an extremely exciting technology, de-extinction is going to need a lot of careful thought and consideration to succeed.