The De-Extinction of Bygone Animals Sounds Like a Great Idea — But It Isn't

The resurrection of long extinct animals is now technologically within close reach, but a new paper argues that such efforts can do more harm than good.

The cloning of dinosaurs as envisioned by Jurassic Park remains the stuff of science fiction, but in the not-too-distant future, biotech advances could allow scientists to de-extinct - or create close proxies for - many long-gone animals. These include the woolly mammoth, enormous cattle called aurochs, a 12-foot-tall flightless bird, the woolly rhino, and a great variety of other species.

Proponents claim such efforts could help existing ecosystems by restoring past order, maintaining grasslands to help combat climate change, and revealing ancient DNA secrets that might benefit multiple species. The financial windfall could also be impressive, as many of us would probably pay to see a "resurrected" Ice Age beast in person.

A new paper published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution presents a strong opposing view, however, arguing that de-extinction would hurt matters more than help.

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"If biodiversity conservation is the true goal, it is better to spend money on the living than the dead," lead author Joseph Bennett, an assistant professor of biology at Carleton University, told Seeker.

"I'm not advocating giving up on species that are nearly extinct," he added. "Far from it. We need to make sure we maintain viable populations of these species, and captive breeding is a big part of that for many species. If we let them go extinct, it will be far more expensive to bring them back."

Bennett, senior author Philip Seddon of the University of Otago, and their team performed a cost-benefit analysis to determine the number of species that governments in New Zealand and the Australian state of New South Wales can afford to conserve. Crunching the numbers, they found that if these government were to fund de-extinction and related research, work to save nearly three times as many living species - 31 in total - would have to be sacrificed.

The authors also determined that the amount of private/non-government funding required for de-extinction research on five wiped out species could instead be used to conserve 42 living species, which is more than eight times as many.

The estimated costs varied per animal in their analysis. For example, they calculated that in just one year, researchers would require $7.5 million to help resurrect the Lord Howe pigeon, a bird that died out in the 1850s.

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If such an animal were successfully brought back to life, Bennett and his colleagues pointed out, the spending on its behalf would need to continue.

"Once resurrected species move out of the labs and into reserves, they become the responsibility of cash-strapped conservation agencies," Seddon explained. "And unless more money enters the system, something has to drop off."

Most de-extinction research now is being funded by private agencies, which would seem to ease at least some of the associated financial burden. But Bennett and Seddon believe that de-extinction would result in problems that go beyond financial concerns.

"In many cases, I think ecosystems have changed and stabilized [in the aftermath of certain extinctions], and it would indeed be very difficult to actually re-introduce resurrected species," Bennett explained. "There is also the possibility that they could have negative consequences. Haast's eagle - the largest eagle ever and that once lived in New Zealand - comes to mind. It used to feed on moa. But I'm guessing it would find farmers' sheep pretty appetizing."

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has established guidelines on creating proxies of extinct species, such as cattle bred to exhibit characteristics of extinct aurochs. The guidelines resulted from a "De-extinction Task Force" that was established in April 2014 and chaired by Seddon.

Both he and Bennett acknowledge that we are losing species at a fast pace, with up to an estimated 2,000 extinctions occurring on average each year.

"Some argue that we should use any tool at our disposal to save biodiversity," Bennett remarked of the flurry of recent de-extinction and proxy research projects.

But if the researchers those involved in such projects "know they can do a better job at conservation by spending money on the living than the dead," he added, "then their basic motivation might not actually be conservation."

Top Photo: Woolly mammoth recreation on exhibit at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons