Ecological implications of raising the dead

Bringing species back from extinction has always been a fantastical idea. Stories like “Jurassic Park” imagine a world where we have the ability to bring dinosaurs back from the dead. This fictional idea, however, now has the potential to become a reality. De-extinction is the process of taking a species that has gone extinct and bringing it back through cloning or genetic engineering. The actual molecular ‘magic’ of reviving these extinct cousins is not the major complication with de-extinctions, scientists say these species could be brought back in as little as two years. Biologists’ major concern is the ecological implications of introducing the newly extant species back into the environment.

To see how the reintroduction of these de-extinct animals would affect an environment, we should look at closely related species. For example, elephants are the closest living relative to the extinct Wooly Mammoth. Elephants are what is called ‘ecosystem engineers’, they modify or change their environments by using their tusks to dig into the ground to get to a water source which can then be used by many other species. While there are benefits to this behavior, it also causes many problems. Elephants will destroy vegetation, ripping up trees and shrubs with their trunks and tusks in a desperate search for food. If we reintroduced Wooly Mammoths to their previous homes they would potentially exhibit this same behavior and destroy many habitats for current, native species.

These animals might also behave like invasive species. With no natural prey or predators, the newly revived animals could flourish in the ecosystem and become overpopulated at the expense of their new prey source and the previous predator of that prey. For example, if Wooly Mammoths were reintroduced in the tundra they would eat a large portion of vegetation, leaving less for the other native species, whose populations would then decline.

It is important to look at not only the ecological consequences, but the social implications of de-extinction. The Wooly Mammoth, for instance, is popularly thought to have been hunted to extinction by humans. Bringing them back to life might leave people wondering what it would be like to hunt a Wooly Mammoth, and their ivory tusks could become a new revenue source for illegal animal trade on the black market. It’s possible that we could merely be bringing species like the Mammoth back to life to face the same issues their existing cousins are currently experiencing, or those that originally drove them to extinction.

Clearly, it could be dangerous to reintroduce species that haven’t existed in a long time, but what about an animal that had just gone extinct? For a frighteningly plausible scenario, imagine what would happen if polar bears went extinct. Polar bears are the apex predator in the Arctic, they prey on seals, which prey on penguins, continuing down the trophic levels. The seal carcasses they leave behind provide food for many scavengers, such as the Arctic fox. If polar bears went extinct, the scavenger population would decrease because they would have less access to food. The seal population would increase because they would no longer have a natural predator, and with more seals there would be a decline in the penguin population. This domino effect would dramatically alter the population of most species in the ecosystem, as seen in the real life example of the wolves in Yellowstone National Park.  Being able to bring back these newly extinct species might stop the resulting dangerous fluctuations in the ecosystem.

De-extinction might be very beneficial in bringing back recently extinct species and stabilizing ecosystems. However, consider how much power this type of technology would give us as humans. Would access to de-extinction technology make humans even lazier in their conservation efforts? Why worry about saving species from extinction when we could easily create more of them in a lab?

Maybe we could take some advice from Jurassic Park, stop being so preoccupied with whether we could and “stop to think if we should”. Before we concern ourselves with bringing back the dead, we should worry first about conserving the animals we do have that are endangered. After all, it would not do much good to bring animals back from extinction if we haven’t even begun to fix the problems that wiped them out.


Samantha Pierce is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at samantha.pierce@uconn.edu.