De-extinction: An Incredible Conservation Tool or Just a Pipe Dream?

By Jake Trusheim

An artistic rendering of woolly mammoths. With recent advancements in genetic engineering, the mammoth may one day walk the earth again. Via Mauricio Anton
Image 1: An artistic rendering of woolly mammoths. With recent advancements in genetic engineering, the mammoth may one day walk the earth again. Via Mauricio Anton

The woolly mammoth. The passenger pigeon. The thylacine. All of these species are long gone, but thanks to massive advancements in genetic engineering and biotechnology, they may return to grace our planet once again (Bennet 2017). Sound too good to be true? It might just be. Their reappearance may result in the disappearance of currently threatened and endangered species.

De-extinction vs. Conservation

Our planet is currently entering what many scientists believe is a human-induced sixth mass extinction event. Currently, one in every five species on earth is threatened with extinction, but this may rise to 50% in the next 80 years (McKie 2017). As the possibility of resurrecting long-gone species emerges, we must ask ourselves: Can we devote time, money and energy to bringing these species back while so many living species are in danger of going extinct themselves?

That is the very question Dr. Bennet, an assistant professor and conservation researcher at Carleton University in Ontario, set out to answer. Bennet and his colleagues performed a cost-benefit analysis for biodiversity and found that de-extinction almost never results in a net-positive change for biodiversity.

The researchers found that for any one species brought back from extinction, those funds could be used to protect three to eight times as many extant (currently living) species. According to Dr. Bennet, resurrecting extinct species would be “making an ethical decision to bring one species back and let several others go extinct” (Yin 2017).

The black rhinoceros is one of the many endangered species that could go extinct due to de-extinction projects. Via John and Karen Hollingsworth
Image 2: The black rhinoceros is one of the many endangered species that could go extinct due to de-extinction projects. Via John and Karen Hollingsworth

How Much Does It Cost to Revive Extinct Species?

The truth is, we don’t exactly know. We know that any de-extinction effort would involve at least three distinct steps. First, an initial population of the extinct species needs to be produced. This would likely be done by splicing genes from the extinct species into the DNA of a similar extant species. Second, the resurrected species would need to be translocated to a suitable habitat. Finally, the new population would need to be monitored and managed.

The possibility of reconstructing a species that went extinct hundreds or even thousands of years ago is so revolutionary that the cost of producing this initial population is still relatively unknown. Some speculate it could cost tens of millions of dollars (Yin 2017). However, because of the uncertainty, the scientists focused on the long-term costs of de-extinction: reintroduction and management.

Show Me the Numbers

So how did Bennet and his fellow researchers actually determine the cost of bringing species back from the dead? First, they chose to estimate the price of resurrecting 16 different species from Australia and New Zealand that went extinct in the last thousand years. What all these species had in common were similar living species that are currently endangered and protected. The scientists used the budgets for these current-day conservation programs to approximate how much it would cost to conduct similar projects for the previously-extinct species.

The extinct Chatham bellbird of New Zealand, a candidate for de-extinction. Via wikimedia commons
Image 3: The extinct Chatham bellbird of New
Zealand, a candidate for de-extinction. Via wikimedia
commons

For example, in order to estimate the cost of managing a population of the extinct Chatham bellbird, Bennet et al. looked at the current cost of conserving the Chatham Island warbler, a close relative and currently endangered species. Using this method, they concluded that the price of managing the extinct bird would be $360,000 for one year, the same price as ten new luxury BMWs.

The researchers also compared the impact of de-extinction programs on current conservation efforts if governments paid for the resurrection program as opposed to when private organizations covered the costs. Although the latter was predicted to preserve more extant species, the money taken away from currently threatened species was still a considerable conservation concern and resulted in a net biodiversity loss.

De-extinction: Shiny & New but Impractical?

One additional concern is that the optimal habitat of the extinct species may no longer be available or is only available at a fraction of its previous abundance. For example, when woolly mammoths roamed our planet, the earth was in an ice age and large expanses of land were tundra habitat. Today, tundra habitat is shrinking incredibly quickly as a result of climate change. If we succeeded in bringing the mammoth back, would it only be a matter of time until it slipped away into extinction once again?

Another reason some scientists are skeptical of de-extinction is that genetic diversity of newly-revived species would be severely limited. The number of specimen from which we can extract DNA is finite for most extinct species and would only provide a fraction of the genetic diversity the species originally had. If we were to resurrect these species, their minimal genetic diversity would make them extremely vulnerable to disease or an inbreeding depression.

Now’s Not the Time…

Although there seems to be an insurmountable number of challenges to de-extinction, there may still be a place for it in conservationists’ tool kits. While the process doesn’t seem feasible during our current massive extinction crisis, there may be a point in the future when this is no longer the case.

It’s possible that one day humans will manage to share the earth more sustainably with the wildlife around us. If this day ever comes, it’s easy to see how de-extinction may be a worthwhile project to pursue. It’s possible that our children may be able to see a herd of mammoth walk along the tundra landscape like they used to 10,000 years ago.

Citations

McKie, Robin. “Biologists Think 50% of Species Will Be Facing Extinction by the End of the Century.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Feb. 2017

Bennett et al (2017) Spending limited resources on de-extinction could lead to net biodiversity loss. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1: 1–4.

Yin, Steph. “We Might Soon Resurrect Extinct Species. Is It Worth the Cost?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Mar. 2017