Wherever human beings have gone, they have driven animals to extinction, whether those animals were hunted to extinction or if were merely outcompeted. This is not a new phenomenon. Tens of thousands of years ago, the disappearance of megafauna anywhere in the world coincided with the arrival of human beings. In Europe, the famed woolly mammoth disappeared. In the Americas, strange animals like the glyptodon were hunted to extinction, and in Australia, 85% of all animals weighing over 100 pounds went extinct after humans arrived! This included omnivorous kangaroos, super-sized koalas, and enormous wombats.
More recently, human activity has caused the extinction of the moa, the passenger pigeon, and the dodo. But does this mean these species are gone forever? Here are six extinct animals that scientists want to bring back from the dead.
1. An Extinct Animal From the Tip of Africa: The Quagga
The quagga was a subspecies of plains zebra that roamed the southern tip of Africa. It was distinctive in that it had stripes on its head and the front half of its body, while the rear half was brown. It was hunted to extinction in the wild, and the last specimen died in 1883 in the Amsterdam Zoo.
The Quagga Project aims to rectify human mistakes by bringing this extinct animal back to life. As far back as the 1950s, it was suggested that Quaggas could be re-bred via selective breeding. In 1980, this theory got a major boost when research on mitochondrial DNA proved the quagga was indeed a subspecies of the plains zebra.
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In 1987, nine zebras were selected and brought to a specially constructed breeding camp farm near Robertson in South Africa. This was the start of the project to re-breed the quagga. Since then, additional zebras have been selected for their quagga-like traits and brought into the program; however, the increase in zebras required the project to be expanded to additional sites where the zebras could be cared for.
Since the project’s inception, many foals have been born, and subsequent generations have yielded results. So far, six individuals are almost identical to the original quagga. Although not quite quaggas yet, these individuals are known as Rau quaggas. Henry, Freddy, DJ14, Nina J, FD15, and Khumba are the six zebras taking the project forward.
During the Pleistocene era (2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago), a massive species of cattle called the aurochs was widespread across Eurasia, North Africa, and the Indian subcontinent.
By the time human civilization began, the species was already massively reduced in numbers from their peak. By Roman times, only the European aurochs remained. A thousand years later, the last aurochs lived only as a small group in a Polish forest. By 1627, they were extinct.
The first attempts to bring back the aurochs started in the 1930s by Heinz and Lutz Heck, who selectively bred modern cattle. The result was interesting but resulted in a breed called the “Heck cattle,” which differed significantly from the original aurochs.
Current attempts at resurrecting this extinct animal are being made by several organizations. The Tauros Programme and the Taurus Project are both trying to revive the aurochs by using selective breeding, while the rival Uruz Project by the True Nature Foundation wants to use genome editing in their program.
It is hoped that bringing this extinct animal back into the wilds of Europe will benefit the European eco-system, as the aurochs was a keystone species. It is also envisioned that these massive beasts will draw in tourists.
3. Pyrenean Ibex
A subspecies of the Spanish ibex, the Pyrenean ibex is an extinct animal that disappeared due to overhunting in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1999, the last Pyrenean ibex, a female named Celia, was tagged and collared. A tissue sample was taken from her, and she was released back into the wild. A year later, she was found dead, crushed by a tree.
In 2003, scientists used the tissue sample to clone Celia. Her cells were transferred into the egg cells of goats. Many goats were impregnated, but only one came to term. The clone was born with a lung defect and lived for only seven minutes. Despite the sad outcome for this clone, the experiment was deemed a massive success in bringing the Pyrenean ibex back to life.
The problem that exists is that scientists only have the DNA of a female ibex. Scientists plan to address this issue by breeding future clones with the closely related Southeastern Spanish ibex. This would result in a hybrid that could be further bred to resemble the Pyrenean ibex.
4. Passenger Pigeon
Commercial hunting wiped out the passenger pigeon in the early 20th century. Once roaming North American skies by the millions, these now-extinct animals could make a comeback.
Problems lie with the lack of intact DNA, and as such, cloning would not be a viable way to reproduce this bird. A conservation non-profit organization, Revive & Restore, is instead focusing on identifying mutations in the DNA that cause phenotypic differences between the passenger pigeon and the band-tailed pigeon, which is its closest living relative. Through this, the DNA of the band-tailed pigeon can be modified to have the same traits as the passenger pigeon. The resultant hybrid would not be an exact copy of the passenger pigeon, but it would be virtually indistinguishable from the original animal.
The project is in full swing, and captive breeding is planned for 2024, while substantial numbers of these hybrids are planned to be released into the wild by 2030.
5. The Thylacine, an Extinct Animal Better Known as the Tasmanian Tiger
They once roamed over the Australian mainland, New Guinea, and Tasmania; this marsupial population was dwindling even before European arrival in Australia. What little the Australian government did to save the animal was too little and far too late. In 1936, the Tasmanian government declared the thylacine officially protected. Fifty-nine days after the announcement, the last known specimen, named Benjamin, died of neglect at the Hobart Zoo.
In 2017, it was announced that the full nuclear genome of the thylacine had been sequenced. Andrew J. Pask from the University of Melbourne explains that the next step would be to create a fully functioning genome. Although this would require time and considerable research, it is estimated that a full attempt to bring the thylacine back from extinction could happen as early as 2027.
6. Woolly Mammoth
The most famous extinct animal that is being considered for de-extinction is the species of elephant known as the woolly mammoth. From a prehistoric perspective, the extinction of the woolly mammoth is recent. They disappeared around 1650 BCE. That’s over a thousand years after the Pyramids of Giza were built!
For over a decade, research teams from countries such as Japan and Russia have been researching how the woolly mammoth could be resurrected. Various methods have been proposed. The cloning method, which would require mammoth DNA, is not feasible yet, as not enough DNA has been found, although more DNA is being found on a regular basis, especially with the receding reach of permafrost. Another method would involve artificial insemination using mammoth sperm and an Asian elephant mother. A third method would be to migrate genes from the mammoth genome into the genes of an Asian elephant.
Whichever way is successful, it is hoped that if the projects bear fruit, re-introducing the woolly mammoth will benefit the environment. It is theorized that the animal could actually help reverse damage caused by global warming. Recently, an article in Newsweek claimed these extinct animals could be resurrected as soon as 2027.
Bonus: Our Extinct Cousins, the Neanderthals
People might draw distinctions between animals and human beings, but from a scientific perspective, neanderthals, like Homo sapiens, are considered animals nonetheless. They are also candidates for de-extinction, although the ethical debates will go on long after the deed is done if it is ever done.
Homo sapiens (us) did not evolve from neanderthals. We and our neanderthal cousins evolved from a common ancestor, likely Homo heidelbergensis. Neanderthals went extinct around 40,000 years ago, but not before they met up with Homo sapiens and interbred with our ancestors (although because we were separate subspecies, the pregnancies would have been difficult and often produced sterile offspring). In fact, some of our ancestors are indeed neanderthals as a result.
Neanderthals were smart, and like us, they were excellent problem-solvers, and also like us, they were social creatures who enjoyed sitting around the campfire sharing stories. However, they were different enough to be considered a separate subspecies (or even a completely different species by some metrics). What we could learn from a live neanderthal would be immense.
The ethical debate is obvious. Talking about bringing antelopes and birds back from the dead is one thing (which already garners protest), but to bring back a human being is an entirely different debate. Whatever the case, neanderthals live on in us. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, neanderthal DNA makes up between 1% and 3% of our modern DNA.
Bringing extinct animals back from the dead is a topic that receives much debate from an ethical as well as a practical perspective. From a scientific perspective, it causes excitement but also terror, as many deem the practice as “playing God” and see the outcome as potentially disastrous. From a more academic perspective, there are also those who maintain that resurrecting certain extinct species may actually upset the ecological balance that has been created in their absence.