Science Saturday

Maybe Building "Jurassic Park" Isn't Such a Great Idea...

"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should!" That's Dr. Ian Malcolm's warning to the architects of Jurassic Park, and all things considered, they probably should have listened to him. Now, a group of real-life scientists is echoing his sentiments, but they aren't concerned about a dinosaur rampage through a theme park. They're concerned that the push to bring back extinct animals might leave living species in the lurch.

Save the Elephant or Bring Back the Mammoth?

We've already told you about Pleistocene Park, the Siberian expanse where a father-son team is planning on bringing back the wooly mammoth. That's hardly the only extinct animal that scientists are hard at work resurrecting, though. Other potential "Lazarus" animals include the passenger pigeon, the heath hen, and even the dodo. But according to the conservationist Dr. Joseph Bennett, the cost could be greater than the benefits — and it might be paid in the lives of living species that are already struggling.

"If you have the millions of dollars it would take to resurrect a species and choose to do that, you are making an ethical decision to bring one species back and let several others go extinct," Dr. Bennett told the New York Times. "It would be one step and three to eight steps back."

It's not just about spending money on bringing the species back. That part could run tens of millions of dollars. But then there's the cost of actually keeping those species happy and healthy. Dr. Bennett's study estimated that the price of keeping just one species of extinct bird, the Chatham Island warbler, could run $360,000 in the first year alone. Paul Erlich, another researcher urging caution in bringing back extinct species and the author of the book "Population Bomb", points out that even we could bring back the passenger pigeon, for example, there's no guarantee that the modern ecosystem could sustain it.

Drawing of the extinct dodo bird

De-Extinction for a Healthier Planet

But Bennett and Erlich's arguments aren't a fair assessment of the project of de-extinction, according to Stewart Brand, the co-founder of Revive & Restore. That's the company behind many of these initiatives, which include not only extinct animals such as the mammoth and the passenger pigeon, but also critically endangered species such as the black-footed ferret.

Before Revive & Restore begins what they call a "genetic rescue", they assess the value and viability of reintroducing the animal to the ecosystem. The passenger pigeon, for example, played a unique role in repopulating deciduous forests. Enormous flocks of the birds once broke down tree branches when they landed on them all at once, and their waste would fertilize the soil beneath their perches. This isn't a role that any other bird has been able to take on, and thus, the passenger pigeon is one of their top-priority projects. It's also worth noting that Pleistocene Park was also conceived as an eco-friendly effort to clear the tundra of grass and allow for colder temperatures to seep back in.

Still, we can see both sides of the argument. And we're even coming to terms with the fact that we'll never get that pet triceratops.

To find out exactly how close we are to bringing back the mammoth, check out, well, "Cloning the Mammoth" by Beth Shapiro. The audiobook is  free with an Audible trial membership. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Woolly Mammoth Closer to Being Unextinct

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 17, 2017

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