Biology

We could bring the woolly mammoth back to life, but should we?

We could bring the woolly mamm...
Researchers at UCSB have put forward ecological guidelines on determining  how viable it may be to revive extinct animals
Researchers at UCSB have put forward ecological guidelines on determining  how viable it may be to revive extinct animals
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Researchers at UCSB have put forward ecological guidelines on determining  how viable it may be to revive extinct animals
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Researchers at UCSB have put forward ecological guidelines on determining  how viable it may be to revive extinct animals

While a real-life Jurassic Park may not be opening any time soon, bringing back more recently-extinct species, like the woolly mammoth or the dodo, is a distinct possibility. But while scientists in the movie "were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should," real-world scientists are now considering the latter. With various "de-extinction" projects in the works right now, researchers at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) have published a paper analyzing the ecological benefits, risks and responsibilities of reintroducing once-extinct species into modern ecosystems.

Bringing back a creature as huge as the woolly mammoth – which hasn't walked the Earth in over 4,000 years – is, well, a mammoth undertaking. Well-preserved remains are relatively common in the Siberian permafrost, but the cells are usually too degraded to be very useful – a stumbling block that's tripped up previous attempts.

But what if scientists do find a way to revive mammoths? What then? The world has changed drastically in the past four millennia, and there simply might not be a place for them in the ecosystem anymore.

"The idea of de-extinction raises a fundamental and philosophical question: Are we doing it to create a zoo or recreate nature?" says Benjamin Halpern, co-author of the study. "Both are reasonable answers, but restoring species to a natural state will be a much, much harder endeavor. We offer guidelines for how to make ecological de-extinction more successful and how to avoid creating 'eco-zombies.' "

Eco-zombies are described as resurrected creatures that no longer have any ecological function in today's world, making them at best, useless, and at worst, disastrous. To prevent the wasted resources and potential negative effects of eco-zombies, the researchers suggest three criteria for selecting species for de-extinction, in order to best restore ecological function. And unfortunately, the woolly mammoth performs poorly on all three counts.

First, species that went extinct more recently should be prioritized over those, like the mammoth, that disappeared thousands of years ago. Not only would these animals have a better chance of adapting to the current climate and ecosystems, there might still be time for their reintroduction to counteract the cascading impact of their extinction. A few thousand years on, the world has adapted to a lack of mammoths, and their reappearance may just cause more problems than it solves.

Secondly, animals make better candidates for de-extinction if their ecological functions are truly valuable, and nature hasn't yet found a way to replace or replicate. The Christmas Island pipistrelle bat, for example, was the only bat in its environment that ate insects, so bringing it back could help restore the balance to that ecosystem. Given it might have died out as recently as 2009 means it fits the bill for the first point, too.

And finally, the researchers suggest concentrating on species that can be "returned to functionally meaningful abundance levels." If we can only clone and release one or two individual animals, there's not really any point.

"You need to have enough individuals to perform their function well enough to affect the ecosystem," says co-author Molly Hardesty-Moore. "One wolf hunting and killing has minimal impact, but hundreds of wolves performing that function will change the ecosystem."

While there are ethics debates around de-extinction as a concept, the researchers maintain that the process could be useful, as long as considerations like these are made.

"What some are proposing to do with de-extinction will be like manufacturing a part from the engine of a Model T and trying to shove it into a Tesla," said lead author Douglas McCauley. "You just can't take a part and put it into a brand new system and expect it to work without considering how its ecological context has changed."

The research was published in the journal, Functional Ecology.

Source: University of California, Santa Barbara

While a real-life Jurassic Park may not be opening any time soon, bringing back more recently-extinct species, like the woolly mammoth or the dodo, is a distinct possibility. But while scientists in the movie "were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should," real-world scientists are now considering the latter. With various "de-extinction" projects in the works right now, researchers at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) have published a paper analyzing the ecological benefits, risks and responsibilities of reintroducing once-extinct species into modern ecosystems.

Bringing back a creature as huge as the woolly mammoth – which hasn't walked the Earth in over 4,000 years – is, well, a mammoth undertaking. Well-preserved remains are relatively common in the Siberian permafrost, but the cells are usually too degraded to be very useful – a stumbling block that's tripped up previous attempts.

But what if scientists do find a way to revive mammoths? What then? The world has changed drastically in the past four millennia, and there simply might not be a place for them in the ecosystem anymore.

"The idea of de-extinction raises a fundamental and philosophical question: Are we doing it to create a zoo or recreate nature?" says Benjamin Halpern, co-author of the study. "Both are reasonable answers, but restoring species to a natural state will be a much, much harder endeavor. We offer guidelines for how to make ecological de-extinction more successful and how to avoid creating 'eco-zombies.' "

Eco-zombies are described as resurrected creatures that no longer have any ecological function in today's world, making them at best, useless, and at worst, disastrous. To prevent the wasted resources and potential negative effects of eco-zombies, the researchers suggest three criteria for selecting species for de-extinction, in order to best restore ecological function. And unfortunately, the woolly mammoth performs poorly on all three counts.

First, species that went extinct more recently should be prioritized over those, like the mammoth, that disappeared thousands of years ago. Not only would these animals have a better chance of adapting to the current climate and ecosystems, there might still be time for their reintroduction to counteract the cascading impact of their extinction. A few thousand years on, the world has adapted to a lack of mammoths, and their reappearance may just cause more problems than it solves.

Secondly, animals make better candidates for de-extinction if their ecological functions are truly valuable, and nature hasn't yet found a way to replace or replicate. The Christmas Island pipistrelle bat, for example, was the only bat in its environment that ate insects, so bringing it back could help restore the balance to that ecosystem. Given it might have died out as recently as 2009 means it fits the bill for the first point, too.

And finally, the researchers suggest concentrating on species that can be "returned to functionally meaningful abundance levels." If we can only clone and release one or two individual animals, there's not really any point.

"You need to have enough individuals to perform their function well enough to affect the ecosystem," says co-author Molly Hardesty-Moore. "One wolf hunting and killing has minimal impact, but hundreds of wolves performing that function will change the ecosystem."

While there are ethics debates around de-extinction as a concept, the researchers maintain that the process could be useful, as long as considerations like these are made.

"What some are proposing to do with de-extinction will be like manufacturing a part from the engine of a Model T and trying to shove it into a Tesla," said lead author Douglas McCauley. "You just can't take a part and put it into a brand new system and expect it to work without considering how its ecological context has changed."

The research was published in the journal, Functional Ecology.

Source: University of California, Santa Barbara

23 comments
StephenLaBarre
What about animals that went extinct because of man's careless slaughter? For example: the passenger pigeon. Like the bison, passenger pigeons were super abundant and a native animal to America. While many species of native birds are threatened because of dwindling habitat or the introduction of competition from abroad, the passenger pigeon was wiped out for its commercial value. Being a native bird that did not die off because it was outdated by Mother Nature, but rather eliminated by an unnatural cause (man and guns), shouldn't it be our moral duty to reintroduce species with histories such as this? Righting a wrong, so to speak? What's more ethical than that?
piperTom
Scientist asks "Are we [reviving lost species] to create a zoo or recreate nature?" Blather! Who is this "we" refered to? Grammatically, there is no antecedent. Is the reader to assume that all of humanity must make a common decision about this? Poppycock! Not only CAN there be multiple different decisions about this, but there almost certainly will be. Do not think that some bleeding edge group will ask their (government) sponsors what to do. Think, instead, that any thing that bleeding edge scientist can do in THIS decade, will be commonplace in 60 years. Soon hobbyist groups can sequence the genes and impregnate an elephant in the hinters anywhere in south asia or africa. It WILL happen.
Peter Kelly
I think we would do better to concentrate on limiting the numbers of species that we are directly driving to extinction, rather than acting after the fact. Whatever happens in the future, the world and life will continue in some form until the sun becomes a red giant, but if we destroy our ecosystem, nothing will save us from extinction in a very short time.
Rann Xeroxx
The Mammoth was mostly just hunted to death by humans. It existed not too long ago so it's not like it would be completely out of place in the environment. Same with the other species humans have killed off. If you can, why not?
Tom Lee Mullins
I think it is cool to see a living mammoth. I have a problem with bringing back animals that try to eat me (aka; Jurassic Park).
morongobill
Very misleading title. I wish the author would name one extinct species that has been brought back to life. Just one.
Bevin Chu
To whom it may concern: Don't bring back velociraptors. Please.
MintHenryJ
Technology is close to a stage where geneticists would be capable of constructing full genomes of complex animals using synthetic base pairs (from scratch) rather than cloning, such as proposed for the wooly mammoth. Just because the capability exists does not imply it should be attempted. I'm sure there are researchers who would make a case for re-creating Homo neanderthalensis, for example, and other geneticists who would not hesitate to create a human embryo to-order. The considerations are beyond anything mankind has ever faced. It's not just a matter of right or wrong but rather the consequences — societal and ecological — of employing the technology, especially those that cannot be foreseen.
bobcat4424
Public zoos became popular because of the humanist Victorian desire to exhibit man's mastery over Nature. Bringing a living woolly mammoth to life would still serve a higher purpose. It would serve to focus both funding and science on a subject whose "spinoff" benefits would likely to make a significant to several fields, including medicine, genetics, biology, archeology, etc. The hardest obstacle in science is to get enough attention and resources focused on a well-defined goal., It is a major reason why science makes huge leaps in times of war. While the resurrection of an extinct species may not be very worthwhile of and in itself, sometimes we have to step back and look at the larger picture. BTW. The extinction of the passenger pigeon was primarily due to an evolutionary dead end that used massive numbers in a compact space as a way to deal with predators. that resulted in an animal whose pattern was for the population to explode, use up all available resources, then crash. Yes, there were additional factors, such as competition with agriculture, being a particularly tasty squab, and disease that were secondary causes, but the current theory is that evolution had created an animal which had to exist in billion-scale quantities in order to successfully reproduce. So in a population that was already noted as a boom and crash species, there was added pressures from people. But in the end it was Drunkard's Walk that killed the passenger pigeon.
RossCKlooster
Earth's ecosystem, if healthy, can continually adapt to natural extinctions. Although there would be a significant "wow" factor in such an accomplishment, the reasoning for expending likely huge funds, time and resources in reintroducing extinct species strikes me as feeble. If so-called "de-extinction" competes in any way with our pursuit of strengthening the ecosystem and reducing man-caused pressures that cause inordinate extinctions, our scientific interest should remain focused on the latter.