si_fuller (si_fuller) wrote in forteana,

Stirring the ghosts of the past

According to this article, a group of scientists have managed to reproduce the DNA of a thylacine in the embryo of a mouse. This gives the scientific community hope that an entire animal will one day be able to be cloned, bringing the extinct animal back to life.

The thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger (and occasionally Tasmanian Wolf), was a large Australian carnivore that resembled a dog but was actually a marsupial complete with a pouch. It was an apex predator in Australia until humans introduced the dingo about 5000 years ago. It became extinct on the mainland, surviving only on the large southern island of Tasmania where dingos were unknown. Then about 200 years ago humans introduced the domestic dog to Tasmania, as well as livestock, agriculture, guns, poison and steel traps. This combination saw the thylacine become extinct by 1936.

There are, however, a lot of people who claim to have seen a thylacine, both in Tasmania and on the mainland. This is common when it comes to extinct species, be it the thylacine, the moa, the Chinese river dolphin, even the dodo. It’s a one of the seven stages of grief, Denial. There’s also Blame - the idea that evil hunters shot them all is a bit naïve; it was largely a combination of habitat loss and competition from alien species. Still our fault but less direct. And Bargaining, what we have in the above article. If we can bring it back, then everything will be OK! An amazing amount of effort is put into reviving extinct animals. The Quagga of Africa and the Aurochs of Europe are both subjects of intensive breeding programmes to bring their strains out of other subspecies, for example.

It is not simply regret at wiping out a species. After all, there are at least 27 species of mammal alone that have become extinct in Australia since European settlement 200 years ago. There is no grand scheme to bring the Lake Peder earthworm or the bulldog rat back to life. The animal has to be a bit more majestic, a bit more identifiable. I believe that it is our own fear of death which is the driving force. A creature as remarkable as the thylacine becoming extinct reminds a person that they too shall die one day. That everyone they know and care about will also die, that the entire human race will one day be gone. And that truth is a bit hard to cope with.

But enough about the frailty of the human condition. There are ramifications involved in successfully cloning an extinct species back to life. Most importantly, would it survive in the wild? It was illegal to hunt thylacines in 1930 when the last known wild animal was shot. Obviously the law didn’t save it the first time round. We take that sort of thing a bit more seriously these days, but there’s a lot of nuts with guns or bottles of strychnine out there. And as I said above, the main environmental pressures that caused the animal’s extinction are still there, if anything more pervasive than when the thylacine met its demise. On top of that, it is exceedingly difficult to release predators that have been raised by humans into the wild. So much of their behaviour is learned, and it is very difficult for people to teach an animal hunting skills. We don’t know if this would be the case with thylacines, and the problem isn’t insurmountable anyway, but it does remain a factor. So the most likely fate of a cloned thylacine would be as a zoo specimen, a freak with no place in nature and no value to humanity bar its oddity value. Surely this is worse than making it extinct in the first place. But then again, with the way the world is headed, perhaps this is the fate of most large animals.

Another thing that we must consider is the value of a living species. If it becomes possible to clone an extinct animal, then why do we need to protect endangered species? We can cut down the bamboo forests, eat tiger penises by the boxful, run our cars on sperm whale juice, driftnet the rivers and clear-fell the rainforests, safe in the knowledge that we can make it better again later.

Finally, there are a number of thylacine skins, bones and even a foetus locked away in museums, but not much that bears usable DNA. It might not be possible to kickstart a viable species, because the entire breeding group would have almost identical DNA. This would leave the animals extremely vulnerable to disease.

Bringing a dead animal back to life is a noble cause, and it’s very tempting to erase our mistakes. But looking at the big picture, maybe we should let sleeping dogs lie.
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