Essay: When "Ghost" Species Return From Extinction

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The Australians figure cloning will require decades of work, tens of millions of dollars in funding, and forms of molecular technology not yet invented. Even then, lead researcher Don Colgan pegs their chance of success as 15 percent at best.

In the meantime, the project has drawn fire from critics who believe it siphons money from more pressing conservation needs and that it sends the wrong signal to policymakers and the public, suggesting that science may soon have a quick-fix for extinction—and thus, there's little need to preserve endangered species or their habitat. The museum counters that the funds are not coming from existing programs.

Other thylacine enthusiasts consider the whole debate moot because they don't believe the Tasmanian tiger really is extinct in the first place. Ever since 1936, reports have come out of the mountains of Tasmania that suggest a few thylacines may have survived. If so, they've managed to avoid leaving any clear physical evidence of their existence—but then, science dismissed the cahow as extinct for almost three centuries.

This is still a wide and infinitely surprising world we live in, and even as we push the bounds of science and technology, conservationists have learned never to say never when it comes to lost species.

Scott Weidensaul is the author of more than two dozen books on natural history, including his latest, The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species (North Point Press), from which this essay is adapted.

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