De-extinction has always been a phenomenon seen as unfeasible and a matter of fiction. However, the resurrection of species categorised as extinct is becoming a possibility due to climate change. With scientists making epic strides in genetic studies and methodology we are left to question, will we see our planet once again filled with once loved extinct species?
Species extinction, characterised by the permanent loss of a species, leaves a habitat and its ecosystem at a loss, where there is not a single individual of a species remaining on earth.
A research group for Biological Conservation for Trent university Canada, lead by Dr M Peers in 2016, made technical advances that may allow for restoring of currently extinct species, Made feasible under the new climate of our planet. Creating an idealistic ‘environment model’ in which they believe the birds would thrive and repopulate. Modelled upon the natural habitat of the ancient ancestors but also colonising in new areas other than their old habitats. Due to climate change altering areas making them sustainable for the three-candidate species.
In recent years climate change, is becoming a more apparent issue. A shift in the Earth’s climate and weather patterns and a rise in average temperatures is having detrimental effects on habitats and ecosystems worldwide.
Earth’s climate has been relatively stable at about 14 °C. However, in recent years, the average temperature has been increasing. A rise of 0.89 °C from 1901. Coupled with a change in rainfall, sea levels rising, retreating glaciers and ice sheets, nature is paying the price for our human actions. Our every growing industry and chemical waste products (IPOCC, 2014).
However global warming is not all negative. This article discusses how global warming can be a gateway to de extinction.
Focussing upon three, native, North American bird species; The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) and passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius).
The Carolina Parakeet, was the only parrot species native to the eastern United States. 1918, the last known bird died in captivity and 1934 the species was classified as extinct, with a total absence of species from the wild. Loss of habitat and hunting for both food and their colourful feathers was named as the eliminating factor (Saikku M, 1990).
Similarly, with the ivory billed woodpecker, habitat destruction and hunting lead to its decrease. Unlike the other two bird species however, the ivory billed woodpecker has never been classified as extinct, after being thought to be for 50 years. Although extremely rare, sightings have been made in the wild. Untraceable numbers do remain in population.
1914 marked the death of an “evolutionary genius”. Martha the passenger pigeon. The last passenger pigeon in population, dying in Cincinnati zoo marking the species extinction. Once the most abundant bird species that lived filling the sky with its thick flocks. But these flocks meant for their demise as it made hunting easy, and through a shear over hunting dilemma and habitat destruction seen their extinction.
The effects of global warming and the simulation of the ‘environment model’ has gave an insight into the habitat availability for the birds. With habitat loss, ultimately being their demise it has to be made certain the same problem cannot re occur and our climates changes are providing the argument in its favour.
But bringing back extinct species, what impact will this have on Biodiversity?
If we could manage to bring back theses extinct species would it do more harm to the modern-day ecosystems? Or may the resurrection, ‘doom the living’?
The three-candidate species, would anciently have been competitors with our modern-day species. Ben Novak’s talk on his master’s thesis research for “the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback”, 2016, discussed how the bird’s acorn forging outcompeted various species including other birds, rodents, and squirrels.
As well as competition, the birds would have been predators of other species and had an impact upon plant life. However, this impact of plant life has been described as;
“the most important species for the future of conserving eastern America’s woodland biodiversity”.
Demonstrating how ecosystems are losing diversity without the role of the passenger pigeon. For example, seed dispersal and germination of certain plant species benefited from the birds foraging nature of both small and large seeds.
Is resurrection of these candidate species feasible?
The methodology, discussed by Dr Peers, of how the de extinct species of birds will re-enter the population, is somewhat unclear. No clear method of insemination of a host mother is explained. For example, a living surrogate, will need to be the same in size proportions to sustain an offspring.
Adding to this the need for a feasible method for new life that eradicates problems such as foetal death syndrome needs to be developed. The Pyrenean ibex, was classified as extinct in 2000 but in 2009 scientists successfully implanted a Pyrenean ibex into a host and the foetus was carried full term and reached birth. However, died within ten minutes due to lung defects (Folch J et al 2009). Such defect is common in cloning and no appropriate methodology has been discussed to eradicate this. Avoiding this is key to the success of any de-extinction population of bird species making it past a few days old.
The same idea of resurrecting an ancient species such as, the possibility to clone a mammoth however has been a key talking point recently. With Beth Shapiros, “How to clone a mammoth”. The publication and misleading title, led everyone to believe the woolly mammoth would soon be grazing our landscapes once more. However, spoiler alert, it is not possible, the book concludes. So why would de extinction be possible for other species?
Firstly, resurrecting species that faced extinction thousands of years ago is too difficult to achieve for reasons such as samples being degraded or no biological samples to obtain DNA being accessible at all. But also knowing enough about its lifestyle to be able to sustain and care for it in a zoo to best replicate its habitat. Easier to do with the birds of the study. And scientists aim is of resurrecting smaller more manageable species such as the pigeon means it is easier to find a host mother.
With new ideas and methodology for de-extinction being brought to the fore front is there a risk of neglecting conservation in favour of de-extinction but not a guaranteed success? In recent years complex conservation programmes are in place to protect the dwindling numbers of species on the verge of extinction and the endangered species whose numbers would take a rapid decline if it wasn’t for captive breeding
Government funding is insufficient for the complexity of conservation programmes that need to be established to maintain a species number. Therefore, scientists are already at a dilemma for conservation fund what says that receiving funds for de-extinction would be any different. Not only will funding be needed for resurrection of one species but need to successfully de extinct, rear and conserve many individuals of a species to successfully breed and populate many generations until a whole population is established big enough to succeed in the wild without interbreeding. Scientists acknowledge th
e of existence of a natural and social science gap adds which adds to the lack of funding (Nyhus et al. 2002; Cheng et al. 2003).
However, it was discussed in an online journal in 2016 that the government allocate £851 billion, per year, to conservation programmes being establish but only a “quarter is spent”. Demonstrating how lack funding may not be an issue for de extinction programmes but more effective use of budgeting and spending to in turn get a desired result.
But looking at the bigger picture, over 5 billion species have been declared extinct world-wide. Who gets to decide what animals we bring back and what animals we don’t? we have already played god once do we really have the right to do it again or if we were at fault for their extinction should we be expected to bring them back?
In 2010 researchers, Trimble M et al, at the University of Pretoria in South Africa found that “cuter and more interesting animals were far more likely to attract scientific attention and funding”.
Releasing a reincarnated species into the wild will not be an instant process. Need to first achieve a population able to sustain itself and that is big enough to breed successfully without interbreeding. This means a long time first in captivity before the wild, and therefore what about space in captivity for them?
Due to the fact numerous individuals of the same species will have to be cloned for de-extinction there will have to be ample stocks of historic tissue sample with maintained DNA stores. Something which isn’t feasible for species classified as extinct over hundreds of years ago. However, the ivory billed woodpecker is not classified as extinct and a very recent decrease in population. This leaves a window of opportunity were scientists have samples available and very recent ones at that.
Although Scientist have preserved samples that make de extinction a feasible possibility, they have no idea of how they need to be kept in captivity. Knowing how to keep and raise these birds, in order to sustain a population big enough to successfully breed a considerable amount of space is going to be needed. Specialised Aviaries will need to be adapted to the living conditions of the birds, a diet suitable and matched to one of their historical ancestors will be needed all of which scientists are only guessing about. From the paper, it is clear that It Is going to take the birds a lot of adapting to new life.
However, will these birds be born with the Innate behaviour, instinct, traits that its historical ancestors once displayed and be able to successfully integrate and adapt back into the wild. Innate behaviour does not have to be taught or practiced so in truth they will be able to display all ancestral traits and the three-candidate bird’s habitat is now intact and widened due to the climate change impact. Making way for their resurrection.
The ideas discussed in this paper, Peers M et al, 2016, are not stand alone. Many other research groups are favouring this idea of de-extinction as feasible. Environmentalist Stewart Brand, also presents ideas of resurrecting the passenger pigeon using a recombinant gene splicing technique introducing passenger pigeon genes into the genome of the band tailed pigeon. Providing a greater understanding of possible methodology for re introducing the species.
The paper recognises that human development will not restrict the occurrence of any species (Peers M et al, 2016), which we once did hundreds of years ago as hunting for food is no longer a necessity and can be eliminated as a risk to a population. And progressing on from now into the future predictions are that even with a continual climate change it would not have a negative impact on the three species habitats.
As shown, since 1900 onwards to 2100 the changes in climate will resul in a greater range of habibats that can sustain the three candid species.
With the right methodology for cloning, enough biological specimens for DNA extrapolation, a living surrogate, overcoming the potential threat of foetal death syndrome, enough space and money to raise them in captivity and succeed a population without interbreeding and many more guideline parameters for successful resurrection it is clear scientist are still a while off having much loved extinct species populating in the wild. However, knowing that climate change and environmental change makes it more favourable is taking a huge step to explore potential possibilities and in turn redevelop our biodiverse habitats once again.
Cheng A, Kruger L and Daniels SE. “Place” as an integrating concept in natural resource politics: propositions for a social science research agenda. Society and Natural Resources 2003; 16:87–104.
Folch J, Cocero MJ, Chesné P, Alabart JL, Domínguez V, Cognié Y, Roche A, Fernández-Arias A, Martí JI, Sánchez P, Echegoyen E. First birth of an animal from an extinct subspecies (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) by cloning. Theriogenology. 2009; 71(6):1026-34.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2014 – Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Regional Aspects. Cambridge University Press; 2014.
Nyhus P, Westley F, Lacy R and Miller P. A role for natural resource social science in biodiversity risk assessment. Society and Natural Resources. 2002; 15:923–932.
Saikku M; The Extinction of the Carolina Parakeet, Environmental History Review. 1990; 14(3): 1–18, https://doi.org/10.2307/3984724
Trimble M. J and VAN AARDE R. J. Species Inequality in Scientific Study. Conservation Biology. 2010; 24: 886–890. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01453.x
...(download the rest of the essay above)