A roar shakes the trees, awe-inspiring and titanic in its sound. From out of the foliage it strides, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. It is an image hundreds of thousands of movie-goers are familiar with, one captured in the famous Jurassic Park with Spielberg’s world-class talent, but did the T-rex really sound anything like that? Did it look anything like that? We can’t possibly know, because the creature has been extinct for roughly sixty-six million years. Or at least, that’s what we always assumed.
In Beth Shapiro’s “Reversing Extinction”, we explore whether or not species long since lost could be brought back into the modern world, and whether such a thing would be a good idea after all. In Shapiro’s professional opinion as a biologist specializing in so-called ‘ancient DNA’, we shouldn’t be focusing on resurrecting species at all. Instead, we should be focused on reintroducing traits that have vanished from our ecosystems, re-connecting the intricate and delicate balance of life that is so easily disrupted when one part of the chain disappears forever.
An argument I found myself persuaded into agreeing with.
As fascinating as it would no doubt be to fully resurrect a creature such as Tyrannosaurus Rex, the reality of such a thing is far more complicated than it appears to be on the surface, as Shapiro is quick to point out. No animal is ever truly isolated from the world around them, and if we were to try and bring an extinct species back to life without considering those connections, there’s no telling what the end result might be.
As Shapiro herself points out “A baby mammoth will also need a place to live, a social group to teach it how to live, and, eventually, a large, open space where it can roam freely but also be safe from poaching and other dangers” (Shapiro). I wholeheartedly agree with this position and believe that the dangers of introducing a species to a new environment, separated from its existing ecosystem, are thoroughly documented in the public sphere. Invasive species pose a clear and present threat to many ecosystems the world over. Without the established natural limiting factors in place, the migration of a new animal can cause extreme damage to an ecosystem by outcompeting the local wildlife. An excellent example of this is the cane toad, a poisonous and omnivorous species that has caused widespread destruction in more than one environment by out-competing local predators, and being too dangerous to eat for many of the local species that might normally serve as a limiting factor on their population.
In Jason Dailey’s article “Thousands of invasive cane toads overtake Florida community”, written for the Smithsonian magazine, the journalist expounds upon the story of how dangerous and overwhelming this species was to two different biospheres unprepared to handle them. At one point in the piece, Jason tells how “Australia has been particularly bulldozed by the toads. In 1935, 101 of the amphibians were released in the tropical north of the country to help control beetles attacking sugar cane. In less than 100 years, the species has multiplied to over 2 billion toads, and the horde is marching westward” (Daley). I find Daley’s word choice in describing the toads as a “horde” to be particularly appropriate, as it conjures to mind the image of a ravenous and unstoppable swell of nightmarish creatures’ intent on ravaging the landscape. While this might possibly be considered an extreme example, the dangerous of introducing a new species into an environment that had not evolved with that creature’s characteristics in mind can be plainly seen as being both reckless, and potentially catastrophic.
By that same token however, the reintroduction of a single species that played a key role in the natural life cycle of an environment can also have a pronounced effect on restoring the natural balance. If the introduction of a single species can have such rapid deleterious effects on their surroundings, it should serve as no surprise that a critical species going extinct could have a similar outcome. As an example of the potentially effects of one of these ‘keystone’ species suddenly vanishing, consider the case of the Kangaroo Rat. These small mammals are primarily herbivores, and while their stature may cause them to be easily overlooked, they are actually “So important to their ecosystem that their disappearance can cause a desert plain to turn into arid grassland in less than a decade” (Shapiro). This description is anything but an exaggeration, as the Kangaroo Rat serves as a source of food for many of the local predators, and in turn feeds upon the local grasses, cutting them down like a tiny mammalian lawnmower, and eating their seeds. In this way, the rat both keeps the plant species of its habitat in check and provides local carnivores with a stable source of food. If the kangaroo rat were to suddenly go extinct through some means, its environment would change as a result, the grasses and plants that it fed on would begin to grow largely unchecked, and the local predators would need to find a new food source or starve to death.
Several hundred years down the line, it’s likely that the exact same area would look nothing like what it once did. However, through the very same advances in genetic manipulation that make de-extinction a possibility, a simple solution could be possibly be found. The Kangaroo Rat’s importance to its environment is largely because of how it interacts with the other species in its surrounding, but the actual Kangaroo Rat species is not inherently unique. If the species were to go extinct, it could be possible to take a similar mammal, either another breed of rat, or a creature such as a stoat, and use genetic modification to give that species some of the key traits of the Kangaroo Rat. For example, it might be possible to give a species the wide and blunt teeth of the rat to make it uniquely suited for eating arid grasses and shrubbery, or give it the same paw structure suited for burrowing and digging to create the same underground tunnels that local lizards and squirrels have been known to use for shelter. In this way, while the Kangaroo Rat itself might be extinct, we could create a new population that filled the same environmental niche as the original rats did, and preserve the unique and delicate balance of the local ecosystem.
In conclusion, the science behind de-extinction has been the subject of science-fiction for so long that now, when the technology has begun to reach a point of practical use, it remains fantasized within the minds of the general public. Our obsession with creatures such as the T-Rex and the Wooly Mammoth has lead us to chase the dream of re-creating these long extinct creatures with little regard for the myriad of other environmental and social factors that extinct animals relied on when they were still alive. Beth Shapiro draws attention to the possible uses for this technology that have been overlooked in a haze of scientific fervor, and I find myself agreeing with her that humanity, in our excitement, have focused far too much on what is impractical, but interesting, than what is realistic.