Photograph by Francis Latreille, International Mammoth Committee/National Geographic
Published March 11, 2013
Editor's note: Stewart Brand is co-founder and president of The Long Now Foundation and creator of the Whole Earth Catalog. Check out our coverage on species revival, the topic of a Friday TEDx talk at National Geographic.
Many extinct species—from the passenger pigeon to the woolly mammoth—might now be reclassified as "bodily, but not genetically, extinct." They're dead, but their DNA is recoverable from museum specimens and fossils, even those up to 200,000 years old.
Thanks to new developments in genetic technology, that DNA may eventually bring the animals back to life. Only species whose DNA is too old to be recovered, such as dinosaurs, are the ones to consider totally extinct, bodily and genetically.
But why bring vanished creatures back to life? It will be expensive and difficult. It will take decades. It won't always succeed. Why even try? (Related: Photos of Nearly Extinct Species.)
Video: Should We Resurrect Extinct Species?
Why do we take enormous trouble to protect endangered species? The same reasons will apply to species brought back from extinction: to preserve biodiversity, to restore diminished ecosystems, to advance the science of preventing extinctions, and to undo harm that humans have caused in the past.
Furthermore, the prospect of de-extinction is profound news. That something as irreversible and final as extinction might be reversed is a stunning realization. The imagination soars. Just the thought of mammoths and passenger pigeons alive again invokes the awe and wonder that drives all conservation at its deepest level.
One will describe species that are doing fine as well as species that were in trouble and are now doing better, thanks to effective efforts to help them. The other list will describe protected wild lands in the world that are particularly well managed.
Conservationists are learning the benefits of building hope and building on hope. Species brought back from extinction will be beacons of hope. (Pictures: Extinct Species that Could be Brought Back.)
Useful science will also emerge. Close examination of the genomes of extinct species can tell us much about what made them vulnerable in the first place. Were they in a bottleneck with too little genetic variability? How were they different from close relatives that survived? Living specimens will reveal even more.
Techniques being developed for de-extinction will also be directly applicable to living species that are close to extinction. Tiny populations can have their genetic variability restored. A species with a genetic Achilles' heel might be totally cured with an adjustment introduced through cloning.
For instance, the transmissible cancer on the faces of Tasmanian devils is thought to be caused by a single gene. That gene can be silenced in a generation of the animals released to the wild. The cancer would disappear in the wild soon after, because the immune animals won't transmit it, and animals with the immunity will out-reproduce the susceptible until the entire population is immune.
Some extinct species were important "keystones" in their region. Restoring them would help restore a great deal of ecological richness.
Woolly mammoths, for instance, were the dominant herbivore of the "mammoth steppe" in the far north, once the largest biome on Earth. In their absence, the grasslands they helped sustain were replaced by species-poor tundra and boreal forest. Their return to the north would bring back carbon-fixing grass and reduce greenhouse-gas-releasing tundra. Similarly, the European aurochs (extinct since 1627) helped to keep forests across all of Europe and Asia mixed with biodiverse meadows and grasslands.
The passenger pigeon was a keystone species for the whole eastern deciduous forest, from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, from the Deep South clear up into Canada. "Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent," the pioneer conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote, "sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life."
Such animals can also serve as icons, flagship species inspiring the protection of a whole region. The prospect of bringing back the aurochs is helping to boost the vibrant European "rewilding" movement to connect tracts of abandoned farmland into wildlife corridors spanning national boundaries.
Video: How to Resurrect the Passenger Pigeon
Similar projects to establish "wildways" joined across American eastern states could benefit from the idea of making the region ready for passenger pigeon flocks and flights of the beautiful Carolina parakeet, once the most colorful bird in the United States.
Wilderness in Tasmania is under pressure from loggers and other threats. The return of the marvelous marsupial wolf called the thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger), extinct since 1936, would ensure better protection for its old habitat.
The current generation of children will experience the return of some remarkable creatures in their lifetime. It may be part of what defines their generation and their attitude to the natural world. They will drag their parents to zoos to see the woolly mammoth and growing populations of captive-bred passenger pigeons, ivory-billed woodpeckers, Carolina parakeets, Eskimo curlews, great auks, Labrador ducks, and maybe even dodoes. (Entrance fees at zoos provide a good deal of conservation funding, and zoos will be in the thick of extinct species revival and restoration.)
Humans killed off a lot of species over the last 10,000 years. Some resurrection is in order. A bit of redemption might come with it.
If you're worried about humans playing God and causing the extinction of species in the first place, then you should surely be worried about humans genetically modifying dead species and creating a new hybrid that is not the original animal in question. It may be inspiring to think that we can reverse the actions of our past generations, but by "reviving" extinct species, we're really just moving forward, not backward.
If you're searching for purity in nature, throwing scientists, money, and genetic engineering at dead animals will not restore any semblance of purity.
Creatures, and humans, carry hordes of 'extinct' genes in our DNA all the time. Read up 'Endogenous RetroViruses', eg at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endogenous_retrovirus. "Many ERVs have persisted in the genome of their hosts for millions of years"
And if you want to know what they could do to the biosphere read Greg Bear's book 'Darwin's Radio' about HERVs and SHEVA. This is sci-fi, but very strong on rigorous, defendable evidence / science.
Bottom line, Nature is bringing 'extinct' creatures back to life all the time. And also creating new new species all the time - at that same time as destroying others that have outlived their environment.
Extinction doesn't mean an inevitable eradication of life forms over time, that's a misunderstanding of the facts. Though, if the Earth has a temperature at the moment, that's peopabaly because of an infection of humans, so once we've been wiped out the Earth will 'recover' ...
1 thing that needs to be considered is: What exactly is De-Extinction? Is it bringing back a single specimen, so that people can watch it like some sort of freak show? Or is it returning it to the wild and establishing a stable population that won't have a major impact on the environment?
What we may percieve at this point as a fantastic idea might be 'conveniently' forgotten in the future, because of disastrous effects. Look at the expansion of European Empires for example. Many white settlers believed they were helping people by taking over their land and forcing christianity into their lives, but we now know we destroyed many civilisations doing this. As much as I like the idea of De-Extinction, we must remember that as a species, we are S**t at forsight.
I would love the idea of bringing back animals gone because of human greed, ignorance, and egotism. To be able to see Stellar Sea Cow, Baiji River Dolphin, and the Dodo would be incredible, but I think it would not just take the focus off already endangered species, I think we as humans would become complacent in the need of endangered species. I can see arguments popping up like "It's too late for them, we'll just resurrect them when we can get a handle on things better", or "Oh, don't worry, we'll just bring it back, it won't matter if it becomes extinct". I think that's a very dangerous way to look at the environment and endangered species.
I really don't see what the problem is. You people are worried that we will disturb "natural species?" We are the ones who destroyed the natural ecosystem. And yes, returning extinct species would have repercussions. Painful for some species, but only those species that benefited from the destruction of the extinct species to begin with. Can we be sure it will work? Of course not. At least not until we try. Anyone who doesn't like living with mammoths should complain to their ancestors whose actions resulted in taking for granted a mammoth-less way of life. It is not only okay, it is our obligation to do whatever we can to right our wrongs.
Without going into specific details as to why so many creatures have become extinct, of one thing we can be sure of and that is, man played a key role in the extinction of these creatures with the exception of the dinosaurs. I.E., the Tasmanian Tiger,Java tiger, passenger pigeon, dodo bird, the Quagga, golden toad, Pyrenean ibex, Baiji dolphin, bubal hartebeest, Steller’s sea cow, great auk and I am sure countless other flora and fauna species as well.
When it comes to profit and personal gain, we, as supposedly, intelligent humans, have little or no regards for other species, including the human species. We continue to burn, drill, pollute, cut, and exploit our planet at all expenses. Despite the efforts of thousands of people and organizations to educate mankind as to the importance of protecting our planet and its resources, we refuse to accept this responsibility in the name of progress and monetary gain. The evidence surrounds us.
Bringing back to light some species which we humans have caused their extinction, in my opinion, is good idea. Gaining experience in this field is important, not only from an, already extinct species, point of view but also from future species extinction, point of view. What an amazing scientific breakthrough it would be to repair some of the damage we humans have done and once again see some species brought back from extinction.
If humans destroyed it and its habitat is still available, bring it back. Undo our woeful deed. If nature did it in, there is no point in bringing it back; it didn't work, and it's not viable to keep it alive artificially. Extinct animals have rights, after all.
As for bringing back woolly mammoths to fix the tundra... what will happen if the tundra changes? Do we really know the whole story there? Softly, softly, remember such "fixes" as bringing cane toads to Queensland to eat the beetles... That wasn't a shining moment for the ecology.
The idea may be cool but the last bit of this article is the exact reason why they shouldn't be brought back. Mentioning going to the zoo to see a mammoth makes me sick. These animals shouldn't be brought back until we can restore the earth and make sure that they will survive in the wild. Would it be cool to see? Sure. But is it right? Not if you're just going to put them in a zoo or continue to destroy the earth so that they just die out again.
We shouldn't mess with nature. So, no, I don't think we should revive any extict species, just take good care of what is still there. Nature will do the rest.
I understand that the resurrection of these extinct species may be beneficial to modern day science and medicine but i don't agree with the idea of releasing anyone specie into the wild unless the area is contained and the animal is under surveillance, otherwise this could result negatively as we know little about these extinct species other than previous assumptions made based off little evidence and artifacts found.
As a speicies humans I believe have reached a apex in evoltion to "play god" and I know I sound a little self ritgous is simply our next step in our evolution as a species einstien said that humans only use ten perecnt of our brains and that if w used even one percent more that we would be balls of floating energy, well I dont know about you but that sounds like what god is to me so he created us in his image so why not be more like him? right? If we acheive that by bringing back to life animals that we were more or less responsable for the extintion of then all we are really doing is living up to what god wants us to be, not nessisarraly trying to be him.
Can you imagine how immensily incredible it would be to be able to actually touch something once extinct for generations! I for one would love to see my tax dollars go into something this amazing though I do think the creatures that are brought back should be held in captivity for a time away from the public to see how they react to human interaction. Some of the creatures may have an adverse effect or reaction to human interaction and should be closely studied before being allowed in zoos or in the wild.
Knowledge is a key that humanity must utilize with all effort!My belief is bring back extinct life form could restore balance on the rock we live on.A harmony I would put it…
Well, realistically, in my mind it comes down to this. Extinct animals are extinct for a reason (With the exception of animals driven to extinction by humans). Ancient animals have become extinct because the environments they live in have changed, or there was increased competition. Focusing mainly on the environment right now. Currently, we are losing habitats for animals that are alive; how are we able to justify introducing new species into environments where species are finding it hard to survive due to human involvement?
If we bring back mammoths, where are we going to put them? Is it ethical to have one or two? If they are anything like our extant elephants they will have a family unit. They will be migratory. And they will be very large, and possibly dangerous towards people and human communities.
'God' and religion barely come into it. This is seriously just a science issue. How will introducing a new species into an existing ecology affect the existing organisms in that area? Well, we know that answer as we have done it countless times - e.g. Cane Toads in Australia, feral cats, dogs, foxes, etc etc. They generally impact the environment in one way or another. Usually for the worse.
Is it right to introduce extinct species and revive them? It doesn't matter if it's right or wrong, or what religion says. It all comes down to 'Can the environment cope with new species?' and 'If so, where would we put them?'. The environments that they had once lived in are gone. We are destroying what little habitats there is left. If this was a mathematical equation, it would be like saying can we get 23 out of 10 + 10. The answer is No. It would not work. However, if they're talking about reintroducing species that have gone extinct in the past 10-50 years, whose environments still exist and have only become extinct due to human involvement and destruction, then I'm more than happy for that to happen.
Just had another thought, i think that bringing back the mammoth would be similar to bringing wolves back to national parks, and that wasn't so bad, was it?
If we resurrect extinct species, WE might become the extinct ones. (And I don't think the new dominant species would be so keen to resurrect us.)
I hope the scientists are thinking what the presence of those revived species mean to the other animals with whom they would be living, that is to say if this becomes a reality, they are certainly not to be kept as pets.. so what would be the reaction of other species, maybe shock, fear, or indifference, and the consequences on the food chain, I hope its all being considered..
I know people are excited to see these species that we couldn't see because of extinction, but it's not fair to the animals we have now because we could be disrupting their natural lifestyles. An equivalent would be like bringing back the cavemen. They are primitive and know FAR less than we do. They'd run around and act like savages and would disrupt our way of life. Eventually, we'd get pretty pissed off and want them gone. This is probably what will occur with animals. I respect anyone's opinion, but I feel strongly about this and I don't believe that they should be brought back.
These species should NOT be brought back. Putting the God issue aside ( I believe in God but not everyone does, so I won't talk about it), if we bring these species back, they could threaten us, or the animals we have NOW. Also, they might not be able to survive and will end up being extinct once again. For example, say we bring back a type of animal and it becomes a predator in a food chain. It might reproduce out of control and will disrupt the way of life. I think we need to focus on the animals we have NOW. Save the whales, tigers, elephants..etc..what have you. Don't worry about these extinct species until we CAN, after all, they'll always be extinct, while we have some that we can save from this unfortunate fate...
toutes les especes AIDEZ nous a passer au siecle suivant ! meme les hommes sont à l'etroit (pas geographiquement) , tous reclament attentions soins et nourritures, les plus riches etats sont incapables de resoudre les questions de pollutions et degradation de la nature. 95% des pays se desinterressent de l'echologie, alors laissons les dinosaures, megalodon, mamouth, smilodon, dodo.... reposer en paix.
Those who say we shouldn't play GOD (so they believe in GOD) better question themselves why did we evolve to such a high level of conciseness and intelligence? No other animal is even close to us. So If you believe in God, then you should trust Him, that we got this grade of conciseness and intelligence to use it. You think it is OK to post to the internet stupid pictures from the toilette, made with high tech iphones, but it's wrong to bring back species that we killed in the past. We use high tech devices to write and read comments, but it's wrong to cure a disease! I wish those who are against of bringing back extinct animals had more brains, or brains at all.
Is it really so bad to right this wrong? We pushed them into extinction, maybe this could be redemption...
One shouldn't allow children to play with dangerous weapons just like humans shouldn't play with the evolutionary scale like this. We as humans are children in the scope of things and we are simply not mature enough to handle such responsibility. Take a look at our past, present & sadly our future. We are not responsible enough & our history is plenty of evidence to show the amount of destruction we've already brought to this earth. Leave the animals in peace.
@Peter Zagar so what?? I mean we are part of the natural world, and if you think we are the only creatures to cause the extinction of species you would be wrong. Nature can, does, and has done that on her own. just because we could do something, does not mean we should. especially animals that would not fit into our modern society. We are asking for a real can of whoop a** on ourselves. the ethics of this are just negative. Once we start doing this, we will not be able to control the results.
@Kiya Swan extinct animals have right?? Did I read that correctly?
@Annmarie Bertoli i agree :)
@Samantha MastersNo, I'm sorry. We are not talking about re-inhabiting the entire earth with Wooly Mammoths in fact most of the places that Mammoths would live today would hardly be places where people would want to live. There are massive portions of wilderness in Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Europe among other places that would perfectly suit the Mammoth. It's not like your going to look out your back door and see Mammoths herds running threw your cul-de-sac (unless you live in the middle of no where.
“Can you imagine how immensily incredible it would be to be able to actually touch something once extinct for generations!”
Can you imagine how immensely incredible it would be to be able to actually...help develop more sustainable living conditions and techniques for endangered people groups, help bring an end to the global sex-trafficking industry, help support non-governmental organizations which are working to negotiate and restore broken and tattered relationships between rival nations and ethnic groups, etc? It seems to me that many people have been using science to take advantage of our wild imaginations, so that they can distract us from what they might see as lost causes, and take more of our money at the same time. Well I suppose they can have your dollars if you insist on it, but I really hope you think it through first. Most of the “benefits” this article has attempted to lay out are severely lacking any significant substance when you look at them critically.
@David Hendriks Nope, but that depends on who you talk to. Many varying opinions in the wolf controversy, primarily from ranchers and hunters who don't want to share.
@Pheonix R.Beware the passenger pigeons invasion :)
@Amrita Prasad Actually, as the passenger pigeon video mentioned, passenger pigeons seem to be closely related to rock pigeons. Rock pigeons are where all domesticated pigeons came from. We could create another strain of domesticated pigeons from the passenger pigeon, and because the passenger is already absolutely gorgeous, the possibilities would be very exciting I imagine. We also killed over 5 million passenger pigeons in about 10 years, for food alone. This, to me means, that they would be an excellent food source. Wooly mammoth's are said to be gentle giants, and their wooly coat supports this, in my opinion, as I have seen in cattle as well other animals that a wooly coat usually means a gentle animal with excellent parenting skills. Wooly mammoths have incredibly large tusks, as well as bodies, but with their already gentle demeanor they would be easy to domesticate and possibly be made smaller, while still having large tusks. Legal ivory anyone? I wonder what mammoth tastes like. :)
@Ben Guido Passenger pigeons would be an excellent food source for many predators, but how they would affect other bird populations I am not sure. Mammoths I would be more concerned about, if you ran into a mammoth in a car that would be an issue, and scaring them out of cities would also be an issue, plus I don't know of any predator large enough now to kill a mammoth, so I think they would be better off in zoos and private residences. Same with the thylacine and some other animals. Mammoths and pigeons are both excellent candidates for domestication and farming, however. :)
@Rodman Papros lol
@Attila Kovacs Well i'm almost sure we all have brains but I don't think you're using yours to think about the negative consequences of such an action. We are all very aware of the positive consequences and for the majority no one is bashing the idea but we're all just concerned about the negative impacts that may result from this and i'm 100% sure that there are negative consequences, it's just the order of life
It's not a question of brains. The fact is, some of these animals went extinct for a reason-not because of us. Like the mammoth-I would love to see one alive, but it wouldn't be wise to bring it back. The ecological niche it occupied is gone. To try to change that could be catastrophic.
The animals that went extinct in the last 100 years or so, due to our actions, should be carefully considered. They will not be filling an empty niche-theirs has closed too. Not only that, with the way our population is expanding and the constant growth of the human footprint on the planet, they would most likely not survive. After all, we're already pushing the existing animals to the margin to make room for ourselves.
@Ronald Robbins Ronald I couldn't have said it better myself
@Ronald Robbins I agree
@Ronald Robbins We played with it an forced countless species into extinction in the first place. This is a reversal process for something we've done wrong. If you run over an old woman, should you just drive on because it's done now and it was just her time to go?
@Dylan Caspari That's a good point. The main arguements supporting De-Extinction focus on some sort of 'redeeming our sins' arguement, rather then other, much more important benefits.
No, get your facts straight. Humans and our relatives hunted the Wooly Mammoth to extinction. Stop spreading your ignorance across the internet.
That is a ludicrous comparison. You're comparing one old woman who has minimal impact on the environment to what could be hundreds of animals whose habits we don't know.
Yes, we made grievous errors in over-hunting or otherwise killing off some of the extinct species, but the world has moved on and to jeapardize ourselves out of a sense of guilt is counterproductive.
De-Extinction in the News
Opinion: Revived species are anything but, and "de-extinction" may be just good marketing.
First off, is Jurassic Park possible? Carl Zimmer, author of the new National Geographic cover story, explains.
The April cover of National Geographic magazine explores the possibility of reviving extinct animal species.
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Scientists have just two weeks to find a cell that could bring the mammoth back. Premieres April 12.