Children and scientists alike have marveled at the possibility of seeing long-extinct animals in today’s world. In this essay, I examine what the possibilities and options are for scientists to bring back what most would consider previously extinct species. Since I aim to prove that this act would ultimately come down to something effective, then I will also be examining what such an act would look like and whether the animal may be considered “authentic.” Through my own research, I make the claim that scientists will more than likely bring back some form of bygone species from the dead. They will also be able to predict the aftermath of this act, and to what extent resurrection of the real thing is possible.
The act of resurrecting an extinct animal is not an easy process, although there are some clues for how we may bring one back to life. Two of the most proposed forms of de-extinction are cloning and genome editing. Cloning takes the DNA of an extinct species and inserts it into the egg of a surrogate mother of a descendant species. Genome editing, by contrast, is the process by which genes of a relative are edited so that (ideally) a hybrid is produced. The key factor in both processes is DNA, whether it is obtained to apply directly or obtained to use as guidance for genetic engineering. Finding extinct animal DNA is not an impossibility, especially for more recently extinct animals, such as woolly mammoths or passenger pigeons. Cloning already has seen some mild success, with new information coming from a recent study by Japanese scientists: “Cell nuclei from the mammoth, believed to have been roaming what is today northern Russia around 28,000 years ago, were successfully implanted in mouse cells” (Ryall). While this DNA wasn’t yet enough to fully develop a mammoth, it is most certainly a breakthrough that ties into the proposed methods. Such advances can assure scientists who are attempting to use female Asian elephants as surrogates for mammoth DNA. With cloning and genome editing, bringing ancient creatures back to life seems closer than most might have thought.
Yet it is still a winding road ahead. Not only does the science have to be just right, but dumb luck needs to be on our side to find the DNA “elixir.” This everlasting hope is what drives many scientists to pursue expeditionary work in search of the right genetic material. Much of it is likely to be found in chillier climates, simply because that is where something like blood, or even tissue, has a higher chance at preservation. In one instance, Siberian mammoth tusk hunters found the remains of a female mammoth. From the mammoth remains, which they nicknamed Buttercup, “scientists hoped to extract living mammoth cells that will yield intact DNA—the missing link in modern scientists’ long-running quest to bring this ancient behemoth back from the dead” (Pruitt). Again, the key is intact DNA, not just any DNA. Such an occurrence is rare, simply because of the nature of preservation. The conditions that need to be met are highly circumstantial, and, even then, actually finding the treasured remains is a difficult quest. As David Shultz describes, “Cloning may eventually give us basically identical genetic copies of extinct species, but we’ll be restricted to animals that went extinct more recently and have well-preserved cells with intact nuclei” (Shultz). As we’ve seen, well-preserved cells are incredibly hard to come by in ancient giants. Even if blood still oozes from a frozen carcass, the DNA itself may be too degraded to provide any kind of future advancements. It helps to study the individual it belonged to and the species as a whole, which is something of the past, but probably not of the the future too. Despite all this, genome editing is a very real option for scientists hoping to resurrect the mammoth. It’s the primary guide for the woolly mammoth and would also help with bringing back other bygone species.
However, an extinct animal that may contend with the mammoth in viability for resurrection is still in question. Rather than relying on chance events to acquire the DNA necessary to resurrect a chilly elephant, some scientists have set their sights on a more recently extinct animal: the passenger pigeon. This species was once so abundant that passing flocks darkened the sky for several days. Implanted with gene-editing tools, one flock of pigeons in Melbourne, Australia is already showing great progress in the de-extinction process. These new genes “will allow scientists to edit their offspring with DNA from the passenger pigeon, the first time live animals will have been edited with traits from a species that no longer exists” (Prigg). It’s a breakthrough in the field and demonstrates that scientists are in fact getting closer to regaining lost species. In regard to this case, the passenger pigeon bears closer relatives in today’s world, and, therefore, genome editing may actually yield more desirable results to create a modern passenger pigeon. Of course, this gene-editing tool can be applied to other experiments, such as that with the woolly mammoth. It creates a broad range of possibilities in the resurrection question that we may not even begin to fathom. Resurrected passenger pigeons may just be the greatest pioneers of the field.
Although there are research institutes and organizations making efforts to resurrect lost animals, there is often discussion as to how reasonable this process is. Some ask what it would look like if the woolly mammoth or the passenger pigeon were really brought back. After all, resurrection isn’t an act just for the sake of action, but rather, it bears affirmative reasoning that can lead us to further accept the newfound life of an extinct species. And that has to do with ecosystemic impacts.
The mammoth, for example, is a frontrunner for this cause. Should it ever successfully be brought back from the dead, herds of mammoths could roam landscapes that were once barren, and thus contribute to said landscapes’ revival. Harvard University’s George Church “points to research that shows that mammoths and other large herbivores trampling across the ancient Arctic ecosystems helped maintain the grasslands by knocking down trees and spreading grass seeds in the dung” (Shultz). Here we find accredited research detailing the impact that the mammoth had. It was a species with purpose, which is perhaps one of the reasons it’s such a popular candidate for de-extinction. This is especially true with the growing project known as “Pleistocene Park,” led by a team of Russian scientists aiming to recreate the subarctic grasslands of the cold north. Such lands are mostly barren, so the woolly mammoth is on their list for good reason.
Because the landscapes of the north are becoming less helpful to the environment, one can see how the woolly mammoth might have a special spot reserved for it. Following up on what George Church said about the mammoth’s role, reintroducing it could revert the warming ecosystems to tundra grasslands. As Sarah Pruitt states, “By grazing on the Arctic tundra, the animals would expose the earth underneath to the cold air, keeping it frozen longer” (Pruitt). This would ensure that permafrost would continue to maintain cooler temperatures in the subarctic, thus counteracting global warming. The size of woolly mammoths and their once great numbers contributing to such impacts mean that most other megafauna have not been able to succeed their position entirely. In doing so, not only do they get to thrive on Earth once again, but various other species would have a chance to flourish where they once did–or find “greener pastures” in a newly reformed landscape.
The case is rather similar with passenger pigeons. Like the mammoths, they were once great in number, and could perhaps fill the role of several species when acting as entire flocks. Their territory was in much of eastern North America, and because of this native home they “played a dramatic role in shaping the forests they inhabited. Their numbers were so great and their droppings so prevalent and flammable that they destroyed trees and increased forest fires” (Shultz). Forest fires in moderation are beneficial because they allow the earth to become fertile once again; passenger pigeons could carry out this sort of help at an incredible scale. There even continues to be evidence that the disappearance of these pigeons left empty spot in the forest ecosystem, such as how white oaks lost their primary mode of seed dispersal (i.e., via bird droppings) (Shultz). No other bird could compare to the influence of the passenger pigeon, similar to how no other large animal could completely replicate the mammoth’s role in the subarctic steppe.
The regeneration of forests would also benefit numerous species of plants and animals, making the passenger pigeon that much more effective as a resurrected animal in today’s world. Both the passenger pigeon and the woolly mammoth were ancient animals that, without humans, held great influence in their original habitats. Now we see that no other animal, because of generations of human pressure, is able to match the ecological scope of their giant, ancient relatives (giant flocks, in the case of the passenger pigeon.) It is safe to say that an animal like the passenger pigeon has the potential to rise to the top once more, if we are able to bring them back.
Of course, there are those arguing that this ecosystemic effort is counterintuitive. The case against de-extinction is based on the idea that we ought to be putting our efforts into saving endangered species and ecosystems, rather than extinct ones. As Paul Ehrlich puts it: “It is much more sensible to put all the limited resources for science and conservation into preventing extinctions, by tackling the causes of demise: habitat destruction, climate disruption, pollution, overharvesting, and so on” (Ehrlich). Much of the desired purposes for resurrecting animals like the mammoth, however, are to do exactly that: restore ecosystems. And, in turn, that event may reignite life in decaying populations and species. Like a ripple effect, one beneficial population of mammoths may restore the subarctic ecosystem, lowering the concentration of greenhouse gases. At such a scale, it would be possible to observe positive effects in just a few years or decades. Ehrlich proves this idea of populations by stating, “Populations are the entities that deliver crucial ecosystem services to society and the ecological engines that sustain and create species” (Ehrlich). It is strange that he does not recommend the idea of resurrecting the mammoth, when a population of this species, or even of the passenger pigeon, may very well serve a greater purpose. In that case, the ecological benefits to endangered species would make the payoff worth it. It would kill two birds with one stone (no pun intended), or three, rather: resurrection of a lost species, restoration of an ecosystem, and the improvement of species in critical condition. The better the resurrected species emulates its true ancestor, the closer it will be to the real thing, or come to be the real thing itself, depending on what advances and discoveries are made. That is how we could one day have prehistoric beasts roaming among us.
Ultimately, de-extinction comes down to science and reason. We must determine whether we have the right tools to make it come true and all the right reasons to carry it out without hesitation. Such reasons aren’t simply based on belief or morals, like “Should we play God?” Rather, they stem from observations and predictions based on not only the present or the future, but also the past. The past is what unlocks our potential for what we can do in the future. That is precisely the way that de-extinction can be made possible.
Resurrecting animals lost in time is no easy task, and though it once seemed like an outlandish idea, many scientists have made the necessary efforts to make it a dream with potential. It has certainly become a dream of mine to one day see a mammoth in person. My passion for prehistory has sprung from my early childhood, my mouth agape at every majestic monster or beautiful beast I bore witness to either on television, as a figurine, or at the natural history museum. But whether it be the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, or some other ancient animal, the thing to keep in mind is that nothing is impossible anymore. We may very well soon be walking among true mammoths–or perhaps just hairy elephants; nobody can predict that for sure. What we can be sure about is that the more we seek to know, the more we will actually end up knowing.
Ehrlich, Paul, et al. “The Case Against De-Extinction: It’s a Fascinating but Dumb Idea.” Yale E360, 13 Jan. 2014, e360.yale.edu/features/the_case_against_de-extinction_its_a_fascinating_but_dumb_idea.
Prigg, Mark. “The Birds That Could Bring the Passenger Pigeon Back to Life.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 9 Oct. 2018, www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-6257933/The-birds-bring-passenger-pigeon-life.html.
Pruitt, Sarah. “Are Scientists on the Verge of Resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 22 Jan. 2019, www.history.com/news/wooly-mammoth-resurrection-cloning-genesis.
Ryall, Julian. “Japanese Scientists Make Breakthrough in Cloning a Woolly Mammoth.” DW.COM, 26 Mar. 2019, www.dw.com/en/japanese-scientists-make-breakthrough-in-cloning-a-woolly-mammoth/a-48063060.
Shultz, David Sep. 26, 2016, et al. “Should We Bring Extinct Species Back from the Dead?” Science, 9 Dec. 2017, www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/09/should-we-bring-extinct-species-back-dead.