Another animal in line for de-extinction is the passenger pigeon. Once endemic to North America, the pigeons were hunted extensively by both Native Americans and Europeans. Habitat loss also contributed to the ultimate demise of the birds, with the last wild one confirmed to have been shot in 1901. When a beloved passenger pigeon named “Martha” at the Cincinnati Zoo died in 1914, the entire species was declared extinct.
Ben Novak of Revive & Restore has been sequencing the passenger pigeon’s genome to study important aspects of the species’ ecological niche vital to its restoration. He and his colleagues estimate that engineered passenger pigeon proxies might be born around 2022.
Such research would appear to help fix problems that humans largely created, since our species contributed to the extinction of passenger pigeons and many of the other animals, including woolly mammoths.
Wray believes biotechnologies applied to de-extinction research should be utilized to help save threatened species, such as corals, bats, bees, and northern white rhinos. She believes that working to save these animals, before they actually go extinct, is where “the most ethical and beneficial application of the technology lies.”
She also thinks that de-extinction work could energize young students by showing them how science may be able to regenerate aspects of biodiversity.
“Young people mainly hear about the loss of precious ecosystems and the fact that they may never get to see a polar bear in the wild,” Wray said. “Perhaps de-extinction and its related technologies could make younger generations excited, rather than jaded, piquing their curiosity for what may be possible in their lifetimes. It’s about creating a hopeful narrative.”
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She and others have serious concerns about de-extinction attempts, however.
Animal welfare is a major one. Wray said there is a lot of “animal failure involved in cloning processes, and some of the animals that do make it may end up in captivity for most, if not all, of their lives.”
The quest for necrofauna may also divert resources and attention from conservation programs for currently endangered species, but zoologist Philip Seddon of the University of Otago thinks that is a faulty argument.
“People have argued against de-extinction as pulling funding away from extant species conservation, but the counter to this is that those interested in funding high-tech approaches such as de-extinction are not likely to be interested in funding ongoing species conservation work, i.e. for every resurrected mammoth we would not have to fire a wildlife ranger,” he told Seeker.
“But, and this is a key issue, once resurrected species move out of the labs and into reserves they become the responsibility of cash-strapped conservation agencies, and unless more money enters the system, something has to drop off,” Seddon added.
It remains to be seen if these “reserves” could become the Jurassic Parks of the future, generating ample funds from members of the public hoping to see resurrected animals. Researchers may even patent their creations.
“Due to the high level of genetic modification that will be required to make many of the animals, they will not be seen as a product of nature in the eyes of the law, and therefore should be patentable,” Wray explained.
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Patents in hand, researchers might then make “un-extinct” animals for the exotic pet market, wilderness meat for human consumers, scientific oddities for display, and other “nightmare scenarios,” as Wray called them.
Wray hopes that factors other than scientific advancement will be considered as the rise of necrofauna proceeds.
“There are many things that hold greater importance than the isolated concept of scientific advancement alone,” she said. “I think the main one that applies here is our will — as members of society — to slowly and deliberately assess the benefits and risks of de-extinction.”
“Importantly,” she added, “it matters that we have the maturity to say ‘no’ to de-extinction if it seems somehow ecologically unsound.”
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