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Stellers Sea Cow

Can We Bring Species Back From Extinction? (…and should we?)

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I was at a school last week and a student in the audience put me right on the spot with a tough question. She asked, ‘If you could bring one species back from extinction, what would be it?’.

After some embarrassing deliberation, I went with Steller’s Sea Cow. There is, unfortunately, rather a lot of wonderful animals that one could choose, but for some reason the tale of this ocean giant caught my imagination and I would give anything to see one.

What was probably the last population was discovered by a stranded Russian expedition in 1741. Having been wrecked on the uninhabited Commander Islands in the Bering Sea, finding these enormous manatee-like herbivores that were easily caught, likely saved their lives. According to journals from the time, the Sea Cows were said to be found in herds close to the shore, and grew to 9 meters in length.

Alas, the meat was so good and catching them so easy that word spread. 27 years later Steller’s Sea Cow had been hunted to extinction.

But what if we could bring species back? Should we? Perhaps it’s too late for the Sea Cow, but dozens of species lie preserved in museums around the world and technology is racing to catch up with our imaginations…

The first step with any bold new idea is to talk about it, so here are some of sciences greatest minds doing exactly that:

TEDxDeExtinction

De-extinction: a game-changer for conservation biology

Stanley Temple shares an impassioned view of why and how we could bring species back, but also offers a hint of doubt: what are the consequences? Could it divert attention from preventing extinction in the first place?

How to Bring Passenger Pigeons All the Way Back

Passenger pigeons once numbered 3-5 billion. It was amongst the most common birds on earth, yet it declined to extinction a century ago. Now, with the abundance of preserved specimens, a related surrogate species, and sequencing technology – we have everything we need to bring them back, argues Ben J. Novak.

Second chance for tasmanian tigers and fantastic frogs

The Thylacine and the Gastric-brooding frog are two species we’ll never see again. That’s sad enough, but what’s worse is that we killed them. We exterminated them, so we have a moral obligation to bring them back, argues biologist Michael Archer.

What do you think? Should we? Could we?

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  1. Jesper Magnusson
    Jesper Magnusson05-22-2016

    A related TED-talk by Jack Horner, “Building a dinosaur from a chicken”, describes in a short way how they can trace genetic information back in time, and use it to give birth to something that would resemble the ancestor of that species (a chicken serving as the example).

    Radiolab also has a good radio episode about the Galapagos, three stories about different species and their survival, and the second called “resurrection” go into how we might bring back the now extinct Pinta turtle.

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