National Geographic News
A threatened Northern spotted owl in a fresh clear-cut.

The spotted owl's habitat is threatened by the logging of old-growth forests—an industry that has lawmakers inquiring about more high-tech measures to save the birds in an effort to justify more deforestation.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Stuart Pimm

for National Geographic News

Published March 12, 2013

Editor's note: Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, and the 2006 laureate of the Dr. A. H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences awarded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Check out our coverage on species revival, the topic of a Friday TEDx talk at National Geographic.

In the movie Jurassic Park, a tree extinct for millions of years delights the paleobotanist. Then a sauropod eats its leaves. This movie later shows us how to re-create the dinosaur but not how to grow the tree, which at that size would be perhaps a hundred or more years old, or how to do so metaphorically overnight. To sustain even a single dinosaur, one would need thousands of trees, probably of many species, as well as their pollinators and perhaps their essential symbiotic fungi.

Video: Should We Resurrect Extinct Species?

 

De-extinction intends to resurrect single, charismatic species, yet millions of species are at risk of extinction. De-extinction can only be an infinitesimal part of solving the crisis that now sees species of animals (some large but most tiny), plants, fungi, and microbes going extinct at a thousand times their natural rates. (Related: Photos of Nearly Extinct Species.)

"But wait"—claim de-extinction's proponents. "We want to resurrect passenger pigeons and Pyrenean ibex, not dinosaurs. Surely, the plants on which these animals depend still survive, so there is no need to resurrect them as well!" Indeed, botanic gardens worldwide have living collections of an impressively large fraction of the world's plants, some extinct in the wild, others soon to be so. Their absence from the wild is more easily fixed than the absence of animals, for which de-extinction is usually touted.

Perhaps so, but other practical problems abound: A resurrected Pyrenean ibex will need a safe home, not just its food plants. Those of us who attempt to reintroduce zoo-bred species that have gone extinct in the wild have one question at the top of our list: Where do we put them? Hunters ate this wild goat to extinction. Reintroduce a resurrected ibex to the area where it belongs and it will become the most expensive cabrito ever eaten. If this seems cynical, then consider the cautionary tale of the Arabian oryx, returned to Oman from a captive breeding program. Their numbers have declined so much that their home, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, was summarily removed from the register. (Pictures: Extinct Species That Could Be Brought Back.)

Yes, the set of plants alive a century or so ago when the passenger pigeon went extinct are probably still here. Is the pigeon's habitat intact? Surely not: The land use changes since then have been far too extensive.

 

 

 

In every case, without an answer to "where do we put them?"—and to the further question, "what changed in their original habitat that may have contributed to their extinction in the first place?"—efforts to bring back species are a colossal waste.

De-extinction is much worse than a waste: By setting up the expectation that biotechnology can repair the damage we're doing to the planet's biodiversity, it's extremely harmful for two kinds of political reasons.

Fantasies of reclaiming extinct species are always seductive. It is a fantasy that real scientists—those wearing white lab coats—are using fancy machines with knobs and digital readouts to save the planet from humanity's excesses. In this fantasy, there is none of the messy interaction with people, politics, and economics that characterizes my world. There is nothing involving the real-world realities of habitat destruction, of the inherent conflict between growing human populations and wildlife survival. Why worry about endangered species? We can simply keep their DNA and put them back in the wild later.

When I testify before Congress on endangered species, I'm always asked, "Can't we safely reduce the spotted owl to small numbers, keeping some in captivity as insurance?" The meaning is clear: "Let's log out almost all of western North America's old-growth forests because, if we can save species with high-tech solutions, the forest doesn't matter."

Or I'm asked, "Can't we breed in captivity the Cape Sable seaside sparrow?"—an obscure little bird whose survival requires the water in Everglades National Park to be the right amount in the right place at the right time. "Let's accommodate the sugar growers and damage large areas of the Everglades. Let's tolerate a high risk of extinction because our white-lab-coated science rock stars can save the day!"

The second political problem involves research priorities. I work with very poor people in Africa, Brazil, and Madagascar. Rich only in the diversity of life amid which they eke out their living, they generate no money for my university. Too many other universities equate excellence with funds generated, not with societal needs met. Over my career, molecular biologists flourished as university administrators drooled over their large grants and their expensive labs. Field-based biology withered. Many otherwise prominent universities have no schools of the environment, no ecology departments, no professors of conservation. It was all too easy to equate "biology" with molecules and strip faculty positions and facilities from those who worked in the field. De-extinction efforts can only perpetuate that trend.

Video: Recipe for Resurrection

 

 

Conservation is about the ecosystems that species define and on which they depend. Conservation is about finding alternative, sustainable futures for peoples, for forests, and for wetlands. Molecular gimmickry simply does not address these core problems. At worst, it seduces granting agencies and university deans into thinking they are saving the world. It gives unscrupulous developers a veil to hide their rapaciousness, with promises to fix things later. It distracts us from guaranteeing our planet's biodiversity for future generations.

25 comments
Austin Willhoft
Austin Willhoft

Personally, I strongly believe that it was mainly the humans fault for some animals that went extinct. One perfect example was the Passenger Pigeon which was one of the most common birds in the wary 19th century. There used to be flocks of them that flew with grace throughout the eastern part of the United States. With that being said, our efforts in de-extincting these animals is completely necessary and morally right. We are not playing god here at all. If anything, we are giving another chance to some species of animals that were murdered for no specific reason. As humans deserve an second chance, so do animals. It was our damn fault for killing some of the most magnificent animals in the world. I would do anything, anything, to come into contact with an Wooly Mammoth, Tasmanian Tiger, or Passenger Pigeon just to witness something truly astounding. 

Michael Butor
Michael Butor

"In this fantasy, there is none of the messy interaction with people, politics, and economics that characterizes my world. There is nothing involving the real-world realities of habitat destruction, of the inherent conflict between growing human populations and wildlife survival."

This is why we need to elect scientists into congress. We have nothing but lawyers and for some reason medical doctors running this country. NONE of them know near enough about ecology, biology, technology, pollution, energy, etc. to make a well informed policy decision on most of what they do. Most of these politicians should be the assistants for scientists who have real intellectual thoughts. All these law degrees in congress get us sophistication in policy writing and that's all they should be doing. Scientists should be deciding what goes in the policy, and the lawyers should only be responsible for writing it out and making sure everything checks out legally. Politicians only know what their "advisors" tell them, which isn't near enough to give them a justifiable background knowledge to make huge decisions.

Iduehe Udom
Iduehe Udom

How can they be revived, possibly, science can then, let them come back cos it is like a myth when a child is being told of such creatures and they are nowhere to be found Source: http://www.unn.edu.ng

Brad Stanback
Brad Stanback

Another nuance to this position is the case of the American chestnut.  This species is functionally extinct and has ceased to evolve and reproduce in the wild, yet almost all of the genetic diversity of the original American chestnut survives in the form of stump sprouts and suppressed seedlings in the understory of the original forest range. The American Chestnut Foundation is using traditional plant breeding techniques to add blight-resistance genes to the species so it can continue to reproduce and evolve in the wild. The genetic diversity of trees from the entire range are being incorporated into this breeding program to reproduce a genuine wild species, NOT a domestic cultivar.

The issue of the interdependence of other species with the American chestnut is an interesting one.  A previous commentator pointed out that there could have been chestnut blight inhibiting microbes in the gut of the Passenger Pigeon, or any number of other interacting factors that we can't know about. Incidentally, when extreme measures were taken to protect the remaining Passenger Pigeons, there were still thousands of them left; but it apparently required flocks of millions in order for them to function as a viable species.

Sarah F.
Sarah F.

There are differences in [local] extirpation and extinction, something to keep in mind!

Bill Cornelius
Bill Cornelius

The amount we don't know about conservation is about equal to what we don't know about resurrecting lost habitat (since there's no way to compare either case). One of the infamous "unknown-unknowns" could be a link between the lost American Chestnut forests and a fungal inhibitor in the lost passenger pigeon guts, but we don't really know. Doing and not-doing involve the same level of meddling, but Doing leaves a paper trail so we know who to blame, and Not-Doing absolutely leaves everything to chance. Reintroduction of a recently extinct species is less problematic than importing arthropod predators to control imported pests, but people who should know better do that all the time.
"Well over 20 million individuals of at least 151 species of insect and mite parasites and predators, almost exclusively of foreign origin, were released against at least 79 insect and mite pests, also  predominantly introduced species, in the United States and its Territories in 1982. Also released that year were over 9 million individuals of 21 species of exotic natural enemies of 18 species of introduced weeds. In addition 7 species of pollinators and other beneficial organisms were released. These releases (from either field  collections of cultures of foreign origin) or recolonization (from  previously established populations in the United States) were made in 45 States and the District of Columbia in 1982. Shipments of 94 biological control agents and pollinators were sent from U.S. facilities to foreign countries in 1982. Also listed in this report are the numerous people in more than 400 Federal, State, university, Territorial, private, and foreign facilities engaged in biological control and other importation, release, and related activities in1982."...
 Coulson, Jack R., compiler. Releases of Beneficial Organisms in the 
 United States and Territories-1992. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 
 Miscellaneous publication No.1505, 529 pp.

Budhi Oetomo
Budhi Oetomo

Agreed with John Sands and John Kredler above. Money for revival not necessarily reduces money for conversation. 

 And there is nothing wrong to create "zoo only" revival species. Like it or not, Wilderness is death, global warming and pollution show that every square mile that not managed by human is going to be destroyed. Whether its National Park like Yellowstone, or Los Angeles Zoo, human management is necessity. every wild animal ( mammoth in zoo, bear in yellowstone, etc) eventually will become "human managed". There are nothing morally wrong with reviving species even there are no longer "wild area" to house them.


Gail Zawacki
Gail Zawacki

The argument is, as Dr. Pimm points out, academic because extinct species will not be able to return to their now-destroyed habitat.

This problem is actually far worse than might appear if only paving and farming are taken into consideration.  Few scientists or foresters admit it, but vegetation is in decline all over the world, from air pollution.  Plants are even more sensitive to tropospheric ozone than people - and as the background level inexorably rises, epidemics of cancer, heart and lung diseases increase as well.

Forests are dying off at a rapidly accelerating rate.  This is typically blamed on drought from climate change, and/or invasive pathogens.

Neither of those inflences are the fundamental cause, however.  Trees at the higher latitudes and elevations of their range are dying prematures just as fast as trees at lower latitudes and elevations.  Trees along rivers and in wetlands and even being watered in nurseries are dying just as fast as trees in drying areas.  The infamous bark beetle is a native insect, and is killing trees in places like Southern California that never had harsh winters.

The only thing all plants share in common is the composition of the atmosphere.  Ozone is invisible but it is getting exponentially worse as precursors travel around the globe.  Annual crops are significantly reduced in yield and quality, and cumulative damage to longer-lived species is making them more vulnerable to attacks from fungus and disease.

We have to stop emitting fumes from burning fuel - including biofuels and fugitive methane emissions from fracking - before we destroy the base of the food chain.

Links to research about this well-established but virtually taboo topic here:  http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/01/29/whispers-from-the-ghosting-trees/

Gail Zawacki
Gail Zawacki

The argument is, as Dr. Pimm points out, academic because extinct species will not be able to return to their now-destroyed habitat.

This problem is actually far worse than might appear if only paving and farming are taken into consideration.  Few scientists or foresters admit it, but vegetation is in decline all over the world, from air pollution.  Plants are even more sensitive to tropospheric ozone than people - and as the background level inexorably rises, epidemics of cancer, heart and lung diseases increase as well.

Forests are dying off at a rapidly accelerating rate.  This is typically blamed on drought from climate change, and/or invasive pathogens.

Neither of those inflences are the fundamental cause, however.  Trees at the higher latitudes and elevations of their range are dying prematures just as fast as trees at lower latitudes and elevations.  Trees along rivers and in wetlands and even being watered in nurseries are dying just as fast as trees in drying areas.  The infamous bark beetle is a native insect, and is killing trees in places like Southern California that never had harsh winters.

The only thing all plants share in common is the composition of the atmosphere.  Ozone is invisible but it is getting exponentially worse as precursors travel around the globe.  Annual crops are significantly reduced in yield and quality, and cumulative damage to longer-lived species is making them more vulnerable to attacks from fungus and disease.

We have to stop emitting fumes from burning fuel - including biofuels and fugitive methane emissions from fracking - before we destroy the base of the food chain.

Links to research about this well-established but virtually taboo topic here:  http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/01/29/whispers-from-the-ghosting-trees/

Philip Andolina
Philip Andolina

We are unable now to effectively control out of place invasive species that are destructive to regional ecosystems yet some would argue we are ready to add a new, out of time variable. A flaw among scientists is their zeal to overreach on behalf of humans whose shortcomings are insufficiently acknowledged. The consequences and responsibilities are laid at the feet of the societies that science serves. 

Is it really enough to assert that humans should better manage themselves? Our abilities need to be measured by how we are actually managing ourselves. We do not currently have a comprehensive enough understanding of life on earth, nor the global wisdom or political will and thus the means to restrain the misuse of our fresh water systems, oceans, and air.

We will need to be able to undo mistakes that we seem helpless to avoid by re-initializing contemporary species rendered extinct through abusive overuse, but re-initializing a long dead and little understood species on the only ecosystem large enough to sustain us all is reckless and should be outlawed.   


Yeap Nee
Yeap Nee

I felt we shouldn't bring back major faunas such as mammoths and sabertooths as this will surely disrupt the current ecosystem. Instead,lets bring back recent extinct species such as Blue buck and Baiji River Dolphin. We should also contain all the revived species in an area where poachers are unable to get their hands on the animals.

Justin Tucker
Justin Tucker

People that actually believe in God should have no scientific opinion. 

Bellz Webster
Bellz Webster

I don't believe they should bring back distinct animals. They should be trying to preserve the ones we have here now like koalas.  We don't look after this planet well enough to give a home to revived extinct species. Especially something big. Can you imagine all the poaches that would try to kill a woolly mammoth! I feel it would be irresponsible to do it. As Jeremy has pointed out  some good points. And we are killing off everything in this world, even ourselves with war. And you are playing God...he created the heavens and the earth and man is destroying all the habitats and man is destroying each other.

Jeremy de Laroche Souvestre
Jeremy de Laroche Souvestre

Everyone's comments are quaint. And I understand the sentiment, you want to see extinct species come back to life. It really comes down to the ecology of it. There is the question: Where do we put them? Of course, the answer is in the 'environment', wherever that may be. But, considering we're destroying habitats and species at the same time. Where do we put them? We are killing species that are alive and their habitats; what do we do with revived species? They will face the same problems in the wild. Also, what impact will they have on extant species? Is it fair to introduce competition just because we think they're awesome?

Also, I'm kind of sad that people are all "Yeah! Let's bring back mammoths" and all these other organisms that are cool and all. But what about extinct plants, algae, insects etc.. Those are cool too! Why is there to focus on large animals?

Akshat Davla
Akshat Davla

If Really possible.. Then We should try it.... its not that we are god but we can try to create a balance in naTURE...

Arthur Shasta
Arthur Shasta

the very notion of creating a life form out of something that does not currently exist is the Biblical definition of man's vanity.

Richard Columbare
Richard Columbare

We have over 6 billion people on earth now and things are becoming extinct at a fast rate. What do you think the earth will be like when we are 50 billion or a trillion. By our very existence on this planet we are killing it. So sooner or later all other life forms on earth will go extinct and last of all it will be us. 

Richard Columbare
Richard Columbare

We have over 6 billion people on earth now and things are becoming extinct at a fast rate. What do you think the earth will be like when we are 50 billion or a trillion. By our very existence on this planet we are killing it. So sooner or later all other life forms on earth will go extinct and last of all it will be us. 

john sands
john sands

 this guy is a an idiot.  I only read like 4 paragraphs of this.


#1: His entire argument about "precedence" is based on the assumption that there are fixed resources which can either be applied to conserving species or to reviving extinct ones, which is completely wrong because the bio-tech labs which would work on reviving extinct animals are completely separate from the people who protect endangered species.  The bio-tech labs can't help endangered species in any major way, if they weren't reviving old species they would be doing some other molecular biology.


So that alone, completely invalidates his argument.


Next he brings up some idiotic nonsense about it being necessary to revive old plants in order for the extinct species to survive.  What?  Are you kidding?  As if their digestive systems are so specialized that they could only digest a certain extinct plant, and they would be unable to eat modern plants which have all the same nutrients and carbohydrates and fiber, and their leaves are made up of the same material.

Sherry Young
Sherry Young

Overpopulation of Homo Sapiens is the worst threat facing our world today.  If we do not learn to control our numbers quickly, then the only living things left on the planet will be us, our food and companion animals, a few rodents, and maybe some pigeons.

John Kreidler
John Kreidler

The arguement presented here is based on some false assumptions. First, that resourses not spent on high tech solutions will be reallocated to wild species conservation. More likely, these resourses will be allocated to something completely different, such as animal and plant varieties for commercial use. Also, it assumes that society will permanently stop threatening a habitat because an engagered animal or plant is in the way of "progress." This may be true in some cases, but certainly not in all. So, while we may not know why a species is going extinct now, we might find the answer and solution shortly after extinction that is permanent. Conservation needs as many tools as it can aquire. One can look to the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone or the reintroduction to the wild of the California Condor as successes of reintorducting animals that were at least regionally extinct or extinct in the wild. The press generated by just these two reintroduced animal species has generated awareness and financial resourses for traditional conservation methods that simply would not have otherwise existed.

bob wright
bob wright

@john sandsYeah, no. That's not really his argument at all. Sometimes saying "I didn't read everything he wrote, but he's an idiot and here is my refutation to what I imagine he might have been saying" isn't such a strong approach. 

Tan Jie
Tan Jie

@Nathan Wright @john sands For each animal that can only eat a certain species of plant/animal, there are hundreds of other animals that can adapt to a different diet. Your one example does not invalidate his argument.

bob wright
bob wright

@Tan Jie @Nathan Wright @john sands It kind of does, actually. There are many, many dietary specialists, and saying "Yes but also there are generalists" isn't germane. And even among generalists, there are many total-biome constraints that only have so much flexibility. In a general way, once a species has been driven to extinction, the same things that caused that to happen in the first place, will still obtain. And the more of the complete ecosystem has been degraded, the less chance that species has. Just being able to meet some minimum dietary need is not much of an indicator of sustainability - it's just the easiest simple example of a deeper and more subtle problem. Species are not just autonomous machines which, given energy, will roll along. They are integral parts of complete systems that are necessary to sustain the niche they have adapted to exploit - and they in turn serve to sustain or to be a nice that is exploited by another part of the system. 

De-Extinction in the News



On Friday, March 15, at our Washington, D.C., headquarters, National Geographic hosted TEDxDeExtinction, a daylong conference on species-revival science and ethics convened by Revive & Restore. The talks are over, but the coverage and conversation continue, in our new cover story on de-extinction, at National Geographic News, on TV—and on Twitter:




More in National Geographic


See exclusive photos and in-depth reporting on de-extinction in April's National Geographic—available as a digital edition March 15 and on print newsstands later this month.

 

National Geographic Channel