Last week National Geographic hosted what sounded like a fun, gee-whiz conference on “De-Extinction”, a term referring to the use of cloning and other biotechnology tricks to resurrect passenger pigeons, wooly mammoths and other extinct species. The event had the jaunty title TEDxDeExtinction.
But my feeling about this topic will always be colored by a somber experience I had returning from Haiti in the summer of 2011 with Penn State biologist Blair Hedges and two enormous suitcases full of doomed Haitian frogs and lizards.
There were red spotted frogs and green frogs, some small enough to fit on a nickel. When we camped out at night they filled the mountain air with a chorus of chirps and calls. Haiti has lost 99% of its original forest – many of the trees are used to make charcoal for cooking fuel – but most of the forest animals cling to what’s left. When that last 1% goes, there will be a biodiversity collapse.
Hedges and his colleagues on the expedition hoped to call attention to the fact that a good portion of Haitian wildlife survived, and that extreme measures could perhaps save these irreplaceable patches of forest and the hundreds of species of reptiles and amphibians that depend on it. I wrote about the expedition in this story for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hedges even found a spectacular striped lizard that had been assumed extinct for years.
Some of the animals Hedges brings back from Haiti are destined for a life in the Philadelphia Zoo. The zookeepers have made heroic offerts to figure out how to feed and house these exotic animals far away from their homes. But something had been lost in the transition from cloud forest to indoor terrarium.
Most of the animals were not going to the zoo. They were headed for freezer at Penn State, where they would be where their DNA could be preserved and sequenced for possible de-extinction. That striped lizard is now long-frozen.
The thought was sad, and desperate. Nobody on the team relished the task of freezing these animals – the hope was to preserve the forest.
If it becomes technolocially feasible to resurrenct them through cloning or creation of synthetic DNA, there remains the question of where they would live. Hedges argued that we should keep them for a record of what was lost, and DNA sequencing he did in his lab was helping him tally what was left and thereby impress the Haitian government over what was at stake. He always finds new species when when he travels, so Hedges feels no doubt the world is losing species that we will never know existed.
The cover story of the April National Geographic details the ongoing discussion of de-extinction. The author, Carl Zimmer, quoted a number of people who believed in de-extinction and others who worried about the sad fate of de-extinct animals whose homes and ecosystems have been forever destroyed.
“If we’re talking about species we drove extinct, then I think we have an obligation to try to do this,” says Michael Archer, a paleontologist at the University of New South Wales who has championed de-extinction for years. Some people protest that reviving a species that no longer exists amounts to playing God. Archer scoffs at the notion. “I think we played God when we exterminated these animals.”
I can see his point, and yet the animals in Haiti are going extinct simply because the human beings who live there want to survive. Those who cut down trees are doing so out of sheer desperation.Others expressed concern not that we are playing God, but misplacing our priorities:
“There is clearly a terrible urgency to saving threatened species and habitats,” says John Wiens, an evolutionary biologist at Stony Brook University in New York. “As far as I can see, there is little urgency for bringing back extinct ones. Why invest millions of dollars in bringing a handful of species back from the dead, when there are millions still waiting to be discovered, described, and protected?”
“The history of putting species back after they’ve gone extinct in the wild is fraught with difficulty,” says conservation biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University. A huge effort went into restoring the Arabian oryx to the wild, for example. But after the animals were returned to a refuge in central Oman in 1982, almost all were wiped out by poachers. “We had the animals, and we put them back, and the world wasn’t ready,” says Pimm. “Having the species solves only a tiny, tiny part of the problem.”
Pimm has his own cautionary essay in the same issue of National Geo. He was also a major source of information for this story I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer on whether we’re currently experiencing a mass extiction.
I wonder what would happen if people put the same technological brainpower behind TEDxDeExtinction into helping Haitians survive without destroying the last of their forests.