Woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and passenger pigeons — Oh my! Biologists at the Revive & Restore project are making plans to bring extinct species back to life. Get ready for a real-world Jurassic Park.
"The Mammoth Commeth," blares the cover of The New York Times magazine's latest issue, complete with an image of the long-extinct furry mastodon. "Bringing extinct animals back to life is really happening — and it’s going to be very, very cool," the subtitle reads. "Unless it ends up being very, very bad." It's not an altogether different headline than what the National Geographic wrote last April: "The revival of an extinct species is no longer a fantasy. But is it a good idea?" The story details the plans of scientists intent on bringing back the world's extinct animals, and the difficulties they would have in doing so.
The obvious, lazy comparison here is to the science fiction of Jurassic Park, but that really is quite accurate. For one, the Times story details how the leaders of the Revive & Restore project collaborated with Russian researcher Sergey Zimov, who has already created "an experimental preserve in Siberia called Pleistocene Park, which he hopes to populate with woolly mammoths." Pleistocene doesn't quite have the ring of Jurassic, but a park for formerly extinct animals is a park for formerly extinct animals.
Similarly, while the scientists bat around hopes for conservation, the really compelling reasons for bringing the animals back are the same as in the blockbuster film: It would be awesome! "This may be the biggest attraction and possibly the biggest benefit of de-extinction," wrote two Stanford professors for a paper published in Science. "It would surely be very cool to see a living woolly mammoth." Those who watched (or read) Jurassic Park, a story explicitly about the dangers of cloning and de-extinction, apparently took the wrong message. "That movie has done a lot for de-extinction," Stewart Brand, one of the leaders of the movement, told The Times "in all earnestness."
The extinct animal who has been assigned the most clear plan, though, is the passenger pigeon, which went extinct about a century ago. The Revive & Restore scientists hope to have reintroduced the birds into the wild by 2060, if all goes according to plan. Other potential candidates for de-extinction are the ivory-billed woodpecker and the possibly-on-the-verge-of-going-extinct white rhino.
So what exactly are the things that could go "very, very bad"? Critics of the de-extinction plans aren't too worried about man-eating woolly mammoths; their concerns are much simpler:
- De-extinction will cost too much money and take away from other conservation funding.
- The animals already went extinct once, so they'll likely do so again. Is there really enough uninhabited cold tundra for woolly mammoths to thrive?
- Bringing species back to life could ruin the fear of extinction — a fear that drives a huge amount of money to conservation.