New Technology Could Enable Scientists to Resurrect Extinct Species

But at What Expense?

What does it mean to be “extinct?” For years, most people assumed the answer is simple: once a species no longer lives, it is extinct, and cannot exist going forward. Think of the Woolly Mammoth, or the Passenger Pigeon for example. However, a fascinating new technology could possibly revive extinct species.

If scientists resurrect extinct species, there could be benefits. One such benefit would be filling missing or broken links in ecosystems that cannot be satisfied by other species. For example, the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914, played a key role in the North American ecosystem. This bird traveled annually from eastern states to the Midwest and all the way up to Canadian deciduous forests. Its flight was critical to replanting the great forests: that is, while landing on trees to rest during their flights, they would also help break down branches, which in turn provided great nourishment for young trees. Since its extinction, the Passenger Pigeon’s unique position has been hard to fill.

However, resurrecting extinct species could also have downfalls. For example, it would be a major loss to revive the Woolly Mammoth and in the process, lose Asian and African elephants, which are already endangered today and would have to share their limited habitat with the Woolly Mammoth.

Dr. Joseph Bennett, an assistant professor and conservation researcher at Carlton University in Ontario, said, “[i]f you have the millions of dollars it would take to resurrect a species and choose to do that, you are making an ethical decision to bring one species back and let several others go extinct.” He explained further: “[i]t would be one step forward, and three to eight steps back.

Scientists estimate that 20 percent of the species on Earth are currently looking extinction dead in the face. That percentage may rise to 50 percent by the end of the century. But if researchers are able to revive extinct species using genetics, they could technically do the same for existing endangered species, who are more likely to survive the process than a completely revived species is.

To be or not to be; should humans revive species from the past- knowing all of the consequences that may come- or should we focus on saving existing- but- endangered species instead? As Dr. Bennett said, “[i]f someone wants to work on de-extinction because it’s technically fascinating, that’s fine… But if the person is couching de-extinction in terms of conservation, then she or he needs to have a very sober look at what one could do with those millions of dollars with living species – there’s already plenty to do.”

[Sources: Sciencemag.org; National Geographic; The New York Times: Time Magazine; Audubon]

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