Evolution assumes that extinction is forever. Maybe not. Henry Nicholls asks what it would take to bring the woolly mammoth back from the dead (Nature).
Imagine never having to worry about a species going extinct again. What if we could store and preserve the genomes of modern species that are threatened or endangered? In fact, this is already being done. The Frozen Ark Project, among others, are preparing to collect samples of the world's most threatened species. This is all done in the hopes that we could resurrect these unfortunate species if they ever went extinct.
In 2007 a baby woolly mammoth was discovered trapped in ice. Soft tissue and DNA were still intact.
Notwithstanding the straightforward approach of this idea, many still find ethical reasons to oppose this scheme. Some environmentalists argue that the Frozen Ark and similar efforts could result in public indifference; if we can just resurrect them later, why worry about a species going extinct? It is true we would do well to focus more energy of conservation. What do you think?
Taking this idea much further, we have several samples of intact tissues from recently extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth, thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), and the dodo. So far, the Pyrenean Ibex is the only extinct animal to have been resurrected through cloning technology.
With the exception of dinosaurs, few extinct animals stir the imagination like the Woolly Mammoth. These elephant-like giants roamed much of North America, northern Eurasia, and Siberia. They were well adapted to cold weather, especially having their characteristic thick shaggy fur. Mammoths likely went extinct due to habitat loss during the ice melting at the end of the Ice Age. Human hunting may have finished off the remaining populations. Some subspecies of mammoth lived as recently as about 4,000 years ago, but their golden age was the Pleistocene.
The causes for the recent extinction of the Pyrenean Ibex is unknown, but there are several theories including an inability to compete for food in its local mountainous habitat in Spain. The last ibex, also known as a bucardo, was killed by a fallen tree, discovered in 2000. Her name was Celia
Dodos, familiar to most of us, have been characterized as being clumsy and slow birds that weren't exactly playing with a full deck of cards. They were also flightless. These descriptions, if accurate, may indicate why the dodo was so easily hunted to extinction, or else destroyed by exotic introduced species due to its fearlessness. It was most closely related to pigeons, a group of animals that has, in contrast, found incredible success living alongside humans.
The Thylacine, AKA Tasmanian Tiger, was a marsupial that lived in mainland Australia and Tasmania. It was hunted vigorously by European settlers, though, by that point thylacine populations were already dwindling or absent from mainland Australia. Like other marsupials, thylacines had pouches, interestingly in both sexes. Thylacines have been around for about 4 million years and their family stretches back to the Miocene.
1933 video footage of the last thylacine in captivity prior to its extinction
Museum of Natural History at Tring
Image of Henry, the modern-day quagga foal produced by the Quagga Project, using selective back breeding.
The Quagga is a subspecies of the well-known Plain Zebra, presenting the apparent hide pattern in that its rear half is brown rather than striped. It used to be common in South Africa until it was hunted to extinction for its leathery hide and meat. The last wild quagga was killed in 1870 and the last one living in captivity died in 1883 at the Natura Artis Magistra Zoo in Amsterdam.
Passenger Pigeons used to be extremely common in North America and were known to form gigantic flocks, even as large as a mile wide. They came under threat during the 19th century when they were used for cheap meat for slaves. The last passenger pigeon was named Martha and died at the Cincinatti Zoo in 1914. Martha was stuffed and is kept in the Smithsonian Museum archives.
In 1966, herpetologist Jay Savage discovered the Golden Toad. He stated, "I must confess that my initial response when I saw them was one of disbelief and suspicion that someone had dipped the examples in enamel paint." The toads were found in the Mountverde Cloud Forest Preserve in Costa Rica, but have not been seen since 1989.
CARIBBEAN MONK SEAL
Caribbean Monk Seals were the only seals native to the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Their extinction was the direct result of humans hunting them for food and oil, as well as outright slaughtering by fishermen who viewed them as competition for fish. Christopher Columbus, during his 1494 voyage, called the seal a "sea-wolf" and eight of them were killed by his crew.
The Bubal Hartebeest went extinct in 1923 when the last living specimen died in captivity at the Paris Zoo. In the ancient world it was domesticated by the Egyptians and may have been used as a sacrificial animal. Europeans hunted the hartebeest for meat and recreation. The last one to be shot in the wild was found in Algeria in 1902.
As the name implies, the Javan Tiger was a subspecies of tiger isolated to the Indonesian island of Java. These tigers were smaller than those on the Asian mainland, probably because of island lifestyle and associated food limitations. At one time they were abundant and considered to be pest, but as human populations increased in Java, the tiger's habitat was fragmented and cleared for crops like rice and coffee. Adding insult to injury, the locals deliberately poisoned the tigers during this process.
BAIJI (CHINESE RIVER DOLPHIN)
The Baiji, or Chinese River Dolphin, was a unique-looking dolphin with a pronounced snout. Prior to the 1970s, Baiji were common in the Yangtze River, but fishing and water pollution (industrial and residential) nearly destroyed the animals. In the 1970s and 1980s, about half of Baiji deaths were a result of entanglement in fishing nets. By the end of that decade, only a few hundred were left.