Extinction

De-extinction probably isn’t worth it

woolly mammoth
Some researchers are working on science that could one day resurrect extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth. Even if they’re successful, it is probably a bad idea because it would divert conservation money away from still-living species, a new study contends.

The prospect of resurrecting mammoths is back in the news after Harvard geneticist George Church announced last month that he may be only two years away from creating a mammoth-elephant hybrid fetus. That’s still a long way from a living mammoth — let alone herds of the animals — and scientists are skeptical that Church will be successful with even a hybrid fetus. The scientific hurdles that will have to be overcome are huge.

But the problems with de-extinction only start there. If resurrecting an extinct species is successful, scientists couldn’t stop at just one or two animals. They would have to make enough for at least one healthy-sized population. Then they would have to successfully reintroduce the species to the planet, taking care to find a place where the new-again species wouldn’t harm others and where the animals would be mostly safe from whatever drove them extinct in the first place. And those animals would then have to be managed and monitored for years.

All this costs big bucks, and it would divert already limited conservation funds away from species that have yet to go extinct but are badly in need of protection, Joseph Bennett, an ecologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, and colleagues warn in a new study. Whether government or private sources pay for such a reintroduction, other species are bound to suffer.

The financial costs of de-extinction are largely a mystery since no one has actually done it yet. But Bennett and his team wanted to get a handle on how much the reintroduction part of the process might cost — and how this might affect other conservation efforts. They turned to Australia and New Zealand for some examples.

“New Zealand and the Australian state of New South Wales are somewhat unique in the world in that they have very detailed prescriptions for all…

Resurrecting Extinct Species Could Kill Off Endangered Species, Study Finds

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Life on Earth is likely facing its sixth mass extinction. The UN Environment Programme estimates that 150 to 200 species of plant, insect, bird or mammal become extinct every day – about 1,000 times the “natural rate,” according to some biologists.

So how can we stop extinction?

One solution scientists have been developing for decades is de-extinction — the process of resurrecting extinct species through genetic engineering. The idea was made popular when an ancient mosquito with a bellyful of dinosaur DNA enabled the resurrection of a Tyrannosaurus rex in 1993’s Jurassic Park. But now that de-extinction could soon be a viable option for biodiversity conservation, some researchers are saying it could threaten extant endangered species.

An article published recently in Natural Ecology and Evolution explains how spending money to resurrect extinct species would reduce already-strained conservation resources for currently endangered species.

A dinosaur attendant emerges from a shipping container surrounded by dinosaurs during the 'Jurassic World'.
A dinosaur attendant emerges from a shipping container surrounded by dinosaurs during the ‘Jurassic World’. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

“On one hand, we can bring back the dead and right past wrongs,” study co-author Joseph Bennett, a conservation biologist at Carleton University in Canada, said to Popular Science. “On the other hand, there are many species going extinct every year, and our resources to help save them are severely limited.”

The study predicts how much money it would take to conserve a handful of resurrected species by looking at the real conservation costs of similar endangered species in New Zealand and New South Wales. Even though the estimates didn’t factor in the costs of actually resurrecting the species, the study found that conserving resurrected species would be significantly more expensive than conserving endangered species.

‘Hey Bill Nye, Which Extinct Animal Would You Like to See Alive Again?’ Bill Nye

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‘Hey Bill Nye, Which Extinct Animal Would You Like to See Alive Again?’

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Bill Nye

The Science Guy

01:53

Number of species depends how you count them

Hercules beetles
DRAWING LINES Scientists sometimes have difficulty determining whether organisms, such as these Hercules beetles, are members of different species. Genetic analysis alone may divide populations into species that don’t exist by other biological criteria.

Genetic methods for counting new species may be a little too good at their jobs, a new study suggests.

Computer programs that rely on genetic data alone split populations of organisms into five to 13 times as many species as actually exist, researchers report online January 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These overestimates may muddy researchers’ views of how species evolve and undermine conservation efforts by claiming protections for species that don’t really exist, say computational evolutionary biologist Jeet Sukumaran and evolutionary biologist L. Lacey Knowles.

The lesson, says Knowles, “is that we shouldn’t use genetic data alone” to draw lines between species.

Scientists have historically used data about organisms’ ecological distribution, appearance and behavior to classify species. But the number of experts in taxonomy is dwindling, and researchers have turned increasingly to genetics to help them draw distinctions. Large genetic datasets and powerful computer programs can quickly sort out groups that have become or are in the process of becoming different species. That’s especially important in analyzing organisms for which scientists don’t have much ecological data, such as insects in remote locations or recently extinct organisms.

Knowles and Sukumaran, both of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, examined a commonly used computer analysis method, called multispecies coalescent, which picks out genetic differences among individuals that have arisen recently in evolutionary time. Such differences could indicate that a population of organisms is becoming a separate species. The researchers used a set of known species and tested the program’s ability to correctly predict…