De-Extinction in Your Backyard Laboratory

I’ve been reading a lot lately about de-extinction. Quaggas, Passenger Pigeons, the Thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger – in fact neither a tiger, nor specifically Tasmanian). Not remotely smacking of necromancy, smart geneticists are working diligently to bring these and other species back from the afterlife. In doing so, they expect not only to resurrect the species, but fill ecological niches left vacant by their untimely demise. I have to admit, it’s a pretty exciting idea.

A serious contender for the first successful de-extinction project is the Woolly Mammoth, championed by a nonprofit group called Revive and Restore and another at Harvard Medical School. The Woolly Mammoth appears to have stuck around until about 3,500 years ago. Closely related to the (thankfully) still extant Asiatic Elephant, it seems possible to map the genome of the mammoth using material from specimens found conveniently preserved in the Siberian permafrost. Map the differences onto the existing Asiatic genome, do some shuffling around of DNA sequencing to make it resemble a woolly mammoth, and voila, you have a “mammophant,” the closest possible genetic hybrid. Out of concern for animal welfare, the embryo would not be brought to term in a real elephant, but rather ‘hatched’ from an artificial womb (still in development).

The argument for doing this in the first place, is that in the Pleistocene mammoths would have trampled the tundra, keeping the ground frozen even in summer. They would have eaten tree saplings, maintaining grasslands that are better than dark-colored closed-canopy forest at reflecting the sun’s rays (an effect called albedo). Given Arctic ice caps’ importance to climatic stability, the service performed by roving mammoths would today be very welcome.

It sounds like great fodder for science fiction but the folks working on it predict to have the first viable birth as soon as the next couple of years. There are, naturally, some questions. Newsweek recently published an article with some of the pros and cons, reflecting the opinions of detractors in the scientific community.

One obvious concern is whether our collective response will be “If we can just bring things back that go extinct, why should we bother to conserve them now?” That would be not only unfortunate but risky. First of all, until scientists figure out how to reanimate non-living cells (which really would be necromancy), the best we can hope for is a hybrid replacement, splicing in pieces of the same genetic code as the species lost. If they are an ecological equivalent to the extinct animal, that would be considered a success, but it’s still not the original, with all its physiological and ecological nuance evolved over millions of years. It might look something like a mammoth, but all the other intangibles could be hit and miss.

Another issue that makes de-extinction an unfit replacement for conservation is one of ecosystem function, a topic I mentioned in my last post. If you remove one species, especially an key player like a gigantic herding plant-eater, the landscape starts to change immediately. Tree seedlings sprout and, in a few years, the grasslands are gone, on their way to becoming a close-canopy forest. Redeveloping an extinct species equivalent currently takes years and even when that process becomes more efficient, it seems unlikely it will ever be a fast one. Species’ complex interactions with their community will degrade during the time it takes to undergo this process. Human habitation will infill, climate change will alter lush or icy habitats, new pathogens will evolve putting the newly created animals at risk. Is this better than keeping species from going extinct in the first place? Unequivocally not.

This is where your backyard comes in. Everything we can do to keep declining species from falling over means one more that won’t have to queue up to be resurrected. Migratory songbirds, for instance, are in big trouble. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 implements four international conservation treaties that the US entered into with Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Russia between 1916 and 1976. It’s intended to ensure the sustainability of populations of all protected migratory bird species (and their remains) by ensuring habitat and safe passage along their migratory routes. Nevertheless, populations have plummeted in the past five decades, dropping by nearly three billion (yes, with a “b”) across North America – an overall decline of 29 percent from 1970 to 2017. See the report in Scientific American. National Audubon Society has also reported last year that more than half of birds in the United States are in decline.

Creating habitat in your yard, feeding birds, providing shelter and nesting opportunities really can make a difference. Take, for example, the (nonmigratory) Tufted Titmouse, which the Cornell Ornithology Lab says has been expanding its range since 1966, seemingly in part because of backyard bird feeders. A few months ago, I mentioned in a post that you can register your backyard as wildlife habitat, in the US through the National Wildlife Federation. Having now confirmed the availability of water, food resources, a diversity of habitats, I can display the Shiny Metal Plaque proudly in the front garden (perhaps justifying our distinct lack of an emerald green lawn).

I’ll continue to watch the de-extinction story with fascination. It would be a triumph for science, a great feel-good story when we see the cute fuzzy mammophant babies tottering around, and could actually help with climate, in an era when every solution should be explored. Sadly, we’ll never have enough space in the yard for mammoth or quagga, so it’s good to know that we’re doing our part.

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