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Endangered Species: The de-extinction controversy

Digital writers

Thursday, August 29, 2013, 9:55 AM -

Scientists have toyed with the idea of bringing extinct animals back to life for decades, and now, advancements in science and technology could make it a reality.

The first attempt was made roughly a decade ago at the helm of Spanish and French scientists.

They tried to resurrect a bucardo, a large, wild goat that was hunted so relentlessly that by 1999 only a single female, named Celia, remained.

When Celia died just before the turn of the century, researchers preserved her cells in a lab for safe-keeping.

Nuclei from the cells was extracted by reproductive physiologists and injected into goat eggs that were emptied of their own DNA. The eggs were planted into fifty-seven surrogate mothers, and seven became pregnant.

From those seven only one survived, and on July 30, 2003, the first extinct animal re-entered the world -- for a brief time.

Celia's clone was only able to survive for 10 minutes after birth, but for scientists, this was a huge step into uncharted territory.

In the past decade, science has advanced further. Stem cell research, for example, has recently made it possible to synthesize meat

And now, scientists want to take another shot at de-extinction.

A TEDx conference on de-extinction last May raised some eyebrows and brought the topic back into the mainstream.

Scientists say they're confident they can bring back a number of now deceased animals. They've comprised a list of 24 animals they set to de-extinct. These animals include:

1) The Carolina parakeet - The only parrot species native to the eastern United States. Extensive over-hunting and habitat loss led to its extinction in 1918.

2) Cuban macaw— This beautiful bird was once common in Cuba, until deforestation and over-hunting took a swipe at the species. Nests were often raided and young macaws were sold off into the pet trade. The last one died off before the 1900s.

3) Aurochs—This species lived throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Disease, habitat loss and deforestation caused its extinction in 1627.

4) The dodo— this flightless bird is probably one of the most famous extinct animals. Their extinction is thought to have around 1662. The bird was relentlessly hunted by sailors, their pets and invasive species in their native Mauritius.

5) The dusky seaside sparrow— This non-migratory species of the seaside sparrow was discovered in southern Florida in 1873 and declared extinct in 1990. The presence of DDT pesticides in their habitat is the leading cause of their demise.

6) The Labrador duck— This rare duck is thought to have disappeared between 1850 and 1870. The causes of its extinction is unknown.

7) The heath hen— famous for likely being the foundation of the Pilgrim’s first thanksgiving, these birds lived in coastal North America and were hunted to extinction in 1932.

8) The ivory-billed woodpecker— Native to the southeastern United States, this animal is listed as "critically endangered and possibly extinct".

9) The imperial woodpecker— Scientists have not confirmed if this animal is, in fact, extinct -- but there hasn't been a confirmed sighting in over 50 years.

10) The Great Auk— this species was largely wiped out during a little ice age in the 19th century. They were found across the Atlantic from Northern Spain through to Canada.

11) Woolly Mammoth— Even though the last population of mammoths lived 4000 years ago, scientists have access to preserved DNA.

12) The Mastodon— A species related to elephants that lived in North and Central America. The mastodon has been extinct for over 12,000 years.

13) The Moa— Similar to the dodo, these bird were also flightless. They weighed over 500 pounds and reached heights of 12 feet. They became extinct by the year 1400 due to hunting and deforestation.

14) Elephant bird— This massive, flightless bird weighed over 880 pounds. It was found on the island of Madagascar and died out by the 17th century for unknown reasons, although human activity is a suspected cause.

15) The Passenger Pigeon— Once incredibly common, this type of pigeon died out after 1914 due to overhunting.

16) The Pyrenean ibex— This species lived in southern France and the northern Pyrenees. Though once abundant, this ibex buckled under the pressure of over-hunting and died out in January, 2000.

17) The quagga— This animal was a species of plains Zebra, and its skin was prized by hunters. The quagga became extinct in 1883 in South Africa.

18) Smilodon— More commonly known as the saber-toothed tiger, the animal died out over 10,000 years ago at the end of the ice age.

19) Baiji— This freshwater dolphin lived in the Yangtze River in China. In 2006, officials declared the species functionally extinct due to habitat loss and human activity. The last known baiji died in 2002.

20) The Thylacine— also known as the Tasmanian Tiger, this gorgeous marsupial went extinct in 1936 due to hunting, deforestation and disease.

21) The Steller's sea cow— found in the North Pacific, this species was hunted to extinction a mere 27 years after being discovered.

22) The Caribbean Monk Seal— Yet another species whose decline is solely attributed to humans. Over-hunting for their oil and extensive fishing reduced the species' available food sources.

23) The Huia — This species of New Zealand wattlebird was obliterated by overhunting and deforestation in the early 20th century.

24) The Moho— Native to Hawaii, these were hunted to the to near extinction in 1934. Their plumage was used to create robes for Hawaiian nobility. Habitat loss and disease took claimed what remained of the species.

Should we bring extinct animals back?

There are no plans to bring back dinosaurs à la Jurassic Park, and some experts scoff at the notion that de-extinction is "playing God".

"If we’re talking about species we drove extinct, then I think we have an obligation to try to do this," Michael Archer, a paleontologist at the University of New South Wales told National Geographic.  

"I think we played God when we exterminated these animals."

But skeptics argue that many of the threats that wiped out some species in the first place, like habitat loss, encroaching human activity and climate change, persist today.

As we speed towards this brave new world of scientific capability, it's been argued that resources should go towards protecting living animals, rather than attempting to bring back the deceased.

Animal welfare is often a footnote in mainstream media reports on de-extinction, but the process poses very real health risks.

When scientists successfully cloned the bucardo in 2003, it was born with severe deformities resulting in its death.

Dolly, the famous sheep that was cloned by scientists at the University of Edinburgh in 1996, only lived for six years -- half of its expected life span. Genetic mutations during the cloning process resulted in severe arthritis and lung disease, leading to her euthanization.

And what about mankind's already lackadaisical approach to conservation?

Biologist Stuart Pimm once argued that "de-extinction is much worse than a waste ... by setting up the expectation that biotechnology can repair the damage we’re doing to the planet’s biodiversity, it’s extremely harmful for [various reasons]."

As the de-extinction debate rages on, time will only tell what we decide to do with our advancing technology.

With files from Paulina Keber and Cheryl Santa Maria

Next Wednesday, we'll learn more about one of the most prolific endangered species on the planet: The panda bear.

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Endangered Species: Zoos and conservation

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