Save what we have and don’t try and bring back the dead.
That’s the message in a new paper by Joseph Bennett, a professor of environmental science at Carleton, that will be published in the journal of Conservation Nature Ecology & Evolution.
In the paper, Bennett argues the “de-extinction” approach to conservation, which involves producing either a clone or a hybrid of an extinct species, actually harms biodiversity as opposed to aiding it.
“Say we do successfully bring back a species that was extinct, our biodiversity would go up by one,” Bennett said. “But the limited resources we have could be used much more effectively in other ways to save more species, our numbers suggest you could save three times, eight times, maybe a dozen more species than if you used the de-extinction method.”
The “de-extinction” process can be done by salvaging preserved tissue from extinct species, which can then be used to clone a living organism, he said. Another method, used when only DNA has been preserved, is to splice the genes into a related species’ embryo, which creates a hybrid animal.
Currently, a team at Harvard University is working on a project to splice the DNA of the wooly mammoth with an embryo from an Asian elephant. The wooly mammoth has been extinct for about 4,000 years.
“By all means, bring back the mammoth to look it in the eye, I’d pay to do that, but that’s not conservation. That’s people paying to a look a mammoth in the eye.” – Professor John Bennet.
The hybrid mammoth-elephant, or “mammophant”, would then be raised by an Asian elephant surrogate mother. But there are many complications with this method.
“For one thing, an Asian elephant lives in the tropical rainforest, so how would a mother Asian elephant raise an elephant to survive in the Arctic?” Bennett said. “Would they get a guy in a Snuffleupagus costume to try and act how we think a mother mammoth would act?”
Bennett disagrees with the idea that “de-extinction” is helping the conservation of biodiversity.
“To me this is a disingenuous thing, because we could be using the species to save biodiversity,” he said. “By all means, bring back the mammoth to look it in the eye, I’d pay to do that, but that’s not conservation. That’s people paying to a look a mammoth in the eye.”
The Harvard team predicts they could produce a viable, living mammoth in the next two years. But Bennett argues the money could be spent in better ways, by focusing on species that are currently at risk for extinction.
“De-extinction is really expensive,” he said. “The amount of money you’re talking about, to bring a species back from extinction, you’re talking tens of millions of dollars, and you could save maybe tens or hundreds of species with that kind of money.”
But with limited funding for conservation efforts, public interest in these kinds of projects could be essential to their success.
“That’s one common argument for de-extinction, and you can imagine if you polled the general public, and asked them whether they’d like to save the wooly mammoth or save 50 plant species, the plants might be in trouble,” Bennett said. “However, when it is [framed] in terms of biodiversity conservation, that’s where
there was a problem.”
“De-extinction is really expensive the amount of money you’re talking about, to bring a species back from extinction, you’re talking tens of millions of dollars, and you could save maybe tens or hundreds of species with that kind of money.” – Professor John Bennett.