Why extinct species seem to be returning from the dead



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The first Fernandina giant tortoise seen in over 112 years.
Galapagos National Park Directorate

David Roberts, University of Kent

Like something out of a zombie movie, species that were once thought extinct seem to be rising from the dead. Between February 21 and March 4 2019, three notable rediscoveries were announced – the Fernandina Island Galápagos tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus), which was last seen in 1906; Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto), which had supposedly disappeared in 1980; and the Formosan clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa brachyura), which disappeared after the last sighting in 1983 and was officially declared extinct in 2013.

These rediscoveries suggest we may know very little about some of the world’s rarest species, but they also raise the question of how species are declared extinct in the first place. The IUCN Red List collates a global register of threatened species and measures their relative risks of extinction. The Red List has a set of criteria to determine the threat status of a species, which are only listed as “Extinct” when…

… there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died.

According to the Red List, this requires…

… exhaustive surveys in known and/or expected habitat, at appropriate times… throughout its historic range [which] have failed to record an individual. Surveys should be over a time frame appropriate to the taxon’s life cycle and life form.

Given all the evidence – or rather, lack of evidence – that’s needed, it’s surprising that any species is ever declared extinct. The criteria show that to understand whether a species is extinct, we need to know what it was doing in the past.

The world’s largest bee was presumed extinct before rediscovery in Indonesia in February 2019.
Stavenn/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Sightings at a certain time and in a certain place make up our knowledge of a species’ survival, but when a species becomes rare, sightings are increasingly infrequent so that people start to wonder whether the species still exists.

People often use the time since the last sighting as a measure of likelihood when deciding if a species has died out, but the last sighting is rarely the last individual of the species or the actual date of extinction.

Instead, the species may persist for years without being seen, but the length of time since the last sighting strongly influences assumptions as to whether a species has gone extinct or not.

But what is a sighting? It can come in a variety of forms, from direct observation of a live individual in the flesh or in photographs, indirect evidence such as foot prints, scratches and faeces, and oral accounts from interviews with eyewitnesses.

The Formosan clouded leopard is endemic to Taiwan and considered extinct, but eyewitness accounts keep speculation alive.
Joseph Wolf/Wikipedia

But these different lines of evidence aren’t all worth the same – a bird in the hand is worth more than a roomful of recollections from people who saw it in the past. Trying to determine what are true sightings and what are false complicates the declaration of extinction.

The idea of a species being “rediscovered” can confuse things further. Rediscovery implies that something was lost or forgotten but the term often gives the impression that a species has returned from the dead – hence the term “lazarus species”. This misinterpretation of lost or forgotten species means the default assumption is extinction for any species that hasn’t been seen for a number of years.

So, what does this mean for the three recently “rediscovered” species?

While a living specimen of the Fernandina Island Galápagos tortoise had not been seen since 1906, indirect observations of tortoise faeces, footprints and tortoise-like bite marks out of prickly pear cacti had been made as recently as 2013.

The uncertainty around the quality of these later observations and the long time since the last living sighting probably contributed to it being declared “Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct)” in 2015. In the natural world, a species is presumed extinct until proven living.

Thought to be the last of its kind, this Fernandina Island Galápagos tortoise specimen was collected in 1906.
John Van Denburgh/Wikipedia

Wallace’s giant bee may not have been recorded in the last 38 years but it was never actually declared extinct according to the IUCN Red List. In fact, for many years it languished under the criteria of Data Deficient and was only recently assessed as Vulnerable.

So, while this is an exciting find for something that hadn’t been seen for so long, its rediscovery shows how little is known about many rare species in the wild, rather than how scarce they are.

The Formosan clouded leopard, meanwhile, was actually listed as Extinct. The last sighting of the species was in 1983, based on interviews with 70 hunters, and extensive camera trapping during the 2000s failed to detect its presence. It was officially declared extinct in 2013.

While the giant tortoise and bee were proclaimed alive after living specimens were found, the clouded leopard’s rediscovery is more uncertain. Based on sightings on two separate occasions by two sets of wildlife rangers, the evidence is compelling. But whether the Formosan Clouded Leopard has really risen from the dead will require considerably more effort to prove.The Conversation

David Roberts, Reader in Biodiversity Conservation, University of Kent

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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An end to endings: how to stop more Australian species going extinct



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John Gerrard Keulemans. Published by Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (France)

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University, and Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University

This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.


We need nature. It gives us inspiration, health, resources, life. But we are losing it. Extinction is the most acute and irreversible manifestation of this loss.

Australian species have suffered at a disproportionate rate. Far more mammal species have become extinct in Australia than in any other country over the past 200 years.

The thylacine is the most recognised and mourned of our lost species, but the lesser bilby has gone, so too the pig-footed bandicoot, the Toolache wallaby, the white-footed rabbit-rat, along with many other mammals that lived only in Australia. The paradise parrot has joined them, the robust white-eye, the King Island emu, the Christmas Island forest skink, the southern gastric-brooding frog, the Phillip Island glory pea, and at least another 100 species that were part of the fabric of this land, part of what made Australia distinctive.

And that’s just the tally for known extinctions. Many more have been lost without ever being named. Still others hover in the graveyard – we’re not sure whether they linger or are gone.




Read more:
What makes some species more likely to go extinct?


The losses continue: three Australian vertebrate species became extinct in the past decade. Most of the factors that caused the losses remain unchecked, and new threats are appearing, intensifying, expanding. Many species persist only in slivers of their former range and in a fraction of their previous abundance, and the long-established momentum of their decline will soon take them over the brink.

The toolache wallaby is just one of Australia’s many extinct species.
John Gould, F.R.S., Mammals of Australia, Vol. II Plate 19, London, 1863

Unnecessarily extinct

These losses need not have happened. Almost all were predictable and preventable. They represent failures in our duty of care, legislation, policy and management. They give witness to, and warn us about, the malaise of our land and waters.

How do we staunch the wound and maintain Australia’s wildlife? It’s a problem with many facets and no single solution. Here we provide ten recommendations, based on an underlying recognition that more extinctions will be inevitable unless we treat nature as part of the essence of this country, rather than as a dispensable tangent, an economic externality.

  1. We should commit to preventing any more extinctions. As a society, we need to treat our nature with more respect – our plants and animals have lived in this place for hundreds of thousands, often millions, of years. They are integral to this country. We should not deny them their existence.

  2. We should craft an intergenerational social contract. We have been gifted an extraordinary nature. We have an obligation to pass to following generations a world as full of wonder, beauty and diversity as our generation has inherited.

  3. We should highlight our respect for, and obligation to, nature in our constitution, just as that fusty document could be refreshed and some of its deficiencies redressed through the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Those drafting the blueprint for the way our country is governed gave little or no heed to its nature. A constitution is more than a simple administrative rule book. Countries such as Ecuador, Palau and Bhutan have constitutions that commit to caring for their natural legacy and recognise that society and nature are interdependent.

  4. We should build a generation-scale funding commitment and long-term vision to escape the fickle, futile, three-year cycle of contested government funding. Environmental challenges in Australia are deeply ingrained and longstanding, and the conservation response and its resourcing need to be implemented on a scale of decades.

  5. As Paul Keating stated in his landmark Redfern speech, we should all see Australia through Aboriginal eyes – more deeply feel the way the country’s heart beats; become part of the land; fit into the landscape. This can happen through teaching curricula, through reverting to Indigenous names for landmarks, through reinvigorating Indigenous land management, and through pervasive cultural respect.

  6. We need to live within our environmental limits – constraining the use of water, soil and other natural resources to levels that are sustainable, restraining population growth and setting a positive example to the world in our efforts to minimise climate change.

  7. We need to celebrate and learn from our successes. There are now many examples of how good management and investments can help threatened species recover. We are capable of reversing our mismanagement.

  8. Funding to prevent extinctions is woefully inadequate, of course, and needs to be increased. The budgeting is opaque, but the Australian government spends about A$200 million a year on the conservation of threatened species, about 10% of what the US government outlays for its own threatened species. Understandably, our American counterparts are more successful. For context, Australians spend about A$4 billion a year caring for pet cats.

  9. Environmental law needs strengthening. Too much is discretionary and enforcement is patchy. We suggest tightening the accountability for environmental failures, including extinction. Should species die out, formal inquests should be mandatory to learn the necessary lessons and make systemic improvements.

  10. We need to enhance our environmental research, management and monitoring capability. Many threatened species remain poorly known and most are not adequately monitored. This makes it is hard to measure progress in response to management, or the speed of their collapse towards extinction.




Read more:
Eulogy for a seastar, Australia’s first recorded marine extinction


Extinction is not inevitable. It is a failure, potentially even a crime – a theft from the future that is entirely preventable. We can and should prevent extinctions, and safeguard and celebrate the diversity of Australian life.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University, and Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s fish on ice, as frozen zoos make a last-ditch attempt to prevent extinction


Nicola Marie Rivers, Monash University

Twenty-six of the forty-six fish species known to live in the Murray-Darling basin are listed as rare or threatened. Recent fish kills in the iconic river system are a grim reminder of how quickly things can take a turn for the worst.

A sudden drop in population size can push a species towards extinction, but there may be hope for resurrection. Frozen zoos store genetic material from endangered species and are preparing to make new individuals if an extinction occurs.




Read more:
Cryopreservation: the field of possibilities


Unfortunately, poor response to freezing has hindered the introduction of fish into frozen zoos in the past. Now new techniques may provide them safe passage.

Ice ice baby

A frozen zoo, also known as a biobank or cryobank, stores cryopreserved or “frozen” cells from endangered species. The primary purpose of a frozen zoo is to provide a backup of endangered life on Earth allowing us to restore extinct species.

Reproductive cells, such as sperm, oocytes (eggs) and embryos, are cooled to -196ºC, at which point all cellular function is paused. When a sample is needed, the cells are warmed and used in breeding programs to produce new individuals, or to study their DNA to determine genetic relationships with other species.

There are several cryobanking facilities in Australia, including the Australian Frozen Zoo (where I work), the CryoDiversity Bank and the Ian Potter Australian Wildlife Biobank, as well as private collections. These cryobanks safeguard some of Australia’s most unique wildlife including the greater bilby, the golden bandicoot, and the yellow-footed rock wallaby as well as other exotic species such as the black rhino and orangutans.

Internationally, frozen zoos are working together to build a “Noah’s Ark” of frozen tissue. The Frozen Ark project, established in 2004 at the University of Nottingham, now consists of over 5,000 species housed in 22 facilities across the globe.

The Manchurian trout, or lenok, is the only fish successfully reproduced through cryopreservation and surrogacy.
National Institute of Ecology via Wikimedia, CC BY

Less love for fish

As more and more species move into frozen zoos, fish are at risk of being left out. Despite years of research, no long-term survival has been reported in fish eggs or embryos after cryopreservation. However, precursors of sperm and eggs known as gonial cells found in the developing embryo or the ovary or testis of adult fish have been preserved successfully in several species including brown trout, rainbow trout, tench and goby.

By freezing these precursory cells, we now have a viable method of storing fish genetics but, unlike eggs and sperm, the cells are not mature and cannot be used to produce offspring in this form.

To transform the cells into sperm and eggs, they are transplanted into a surrogate fish. Donor cells are injected into the surrogate where they follow instructions from surrounding cells which tell them where to go and when and how to make sperm or eggs.

Once the surrogate is sexually mature they can mate and produce offspring that are direct decedents of the endangered species the donor cells were originally collected from. In a way, we are hijacking the reproductive biology of the surrogate species. By selecting surrogates that are prolific breeders we can essentially “mass produce” sperm and eggs from an endangered species, potentially producing more offspring than it would have been able to within its own lifetime.

Cell surrogacy has been successful in sturgeon, rainbow trout and zebrafish.

The combination of cryopreservation and surrogacy in conservation is promising but has only successfully been used in one endangered species so far, the Manchurian trout.

Not a get-out-of-conservation card

The “store now, save later” strategy of frozen zoos sounds simple but alas it is not. The methods needed to reproduce many species from frozen tissue are still being developed and may take years to perfect. The cost of maintaining frozen collections and developing methods of resurrection could divert funding from preventative conservation efforts.

Even if de-extinction is possible, there could be problems. The Australian landscape is evolving – temperatures fluctuate, habitats change, new predators and diseases are being introduced. Extinction is a consequence of failing to adapt to these changes. Reintroducing a species into the same hostile environment that lead to its demise may be a fool’s errand. How can we ensure reintroduced animals will thrive in an environment they may no longer be suited for?

Reducing human impact on the natural environment and actively protecting threatened species will be far easier than trying to resurrect them once they are gone. In the case of the Murray Darling Basin, reversing the damage done and developing policies that ensure its long-term protection will take time that endangered species may not have.




Read more:
I’ve always wondered: does anyone my age have any chance of living for centuries?


Frozen zoos are an insurance policy, and we don’t want to have to use them. But if we fail in our fight against extinction, we will be glad we made the investment in frozen zoos when we had the chance.The Conversation

Nicola Marie Rivers, PhD Candidate, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Even ugly animals can win hearts and dollars to save them from extinction



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It can be easier to raise money to aid animals like these African elephants than species that are more threatened with extinction but get humans less excited.
www.shutterstock.com

Diogo Veríssimo, Johns Hopkins University and Bob Smith, University of Kent

The Earth is home to millions of species, but you wouldn’t know it from the media’s obsession with only a few dozen animals like tigers and gorillas.

This narrow focus makes the most of popular fascination with large and cute creatures. Conservationists take advantage of these nonhuman celebrities to raise awareness about important issues and to seek donations to help save endangered animals. Given the multi-billion-dollar funding shortfall for nature conservation, public support is crucial.

Very popular species attract the most wildlife conservation funding. But what about the Nimba otter shrew, the Cuban greater funnel-eared bat or other threatened yet obscure species? And don’t all imperiled green spaces, not just the homes of snow leopards and orangutans, deserve attention?

Mining activities have destroyed parts of the Nimba otter shrew’s habitat.
Flickr/Julian Bayliss, CC BY-NC-SA

Conventional wisdom counsels sticking with the old approach to fundraising, and conservationists tend to see animals like bats and snakes as lost causes. As conservation scientists, we wanted to discover whether marketing could perhaps rescue these species. If companies can successfully sell mops and other humdrum products, why can’t conservationists raise money to save the unglamorous giant golden mole – even if it looks like a small cushion with a nose poking out of it? We sought the answer to this question by measuring the links between marketing efforts and conservation fundraising success.

Who will save the giant golden mole?
Gary Bronner, CC BY-NC-SA

Two different animals

Our recently published study contrasted online fundraising campaigns by two conservation charities: World Wildlife Fund-US (WWF-US) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), through its EDGE of Existence program.

These campaigns are very different. WWF-US raises money for a broad set of projects, addressing global issues from climate change and illegal wildlife trade to forest and ocean conservation. The EDGE campaign we analyzed focuses on saving 100 threatened mammal species.

Given these contrasting approaches, we wanted to see if and when marketing makes a difference. To do this we also had to account for whether the species used for fundraising mattered. This involved measuring an animal’s “appeal,” which depends on lots of factors, such as whether it is cute, large or famous. To see which animals were the most appealing, we showed 850 conservation supporters a random selection of the animal photos featured on the WWF-US and EDGE websites and asked these volunteers to rank the photos.

Let’s first consider WWF-US, which raises money through animal “adoptions.” When people donate, they signal their support for the well-known species. In return they get a stuffed toy, photos of the animals and adoption certificates. But the money WWF-US raised funds projects that benefit more than just the “adopted” animals.

We found two factors influenced WWF-US donors’ choices: the animals’ appeal and the degree of the threat of their extinction. Marketing efforts played no role. No matter how they were described or presented, the most appealing species always drew more donations. This was probably because people already knew and liked them.

The EDGE program raises money in a different way. It supports some universally familiar animals, like the Asian elephant, but many of the species it helps are less appealing to humans, including a variety of rats and bats. Each of these species is shown on their website, so people can click on a link to find out more and then donate.

We found that while people were generally more interested in donating to appealing species, the amount of marketing also made a difference. The animals EDGE actively promoted fared better with potential donors – including some homely ones. Similarly, pitches for the species shown higher up on EDGE’s site got more donors interested in funding the animals’ conservation.


https://cdn.theconversation.com/infographics/105/e3ab8b91f50afedb8ecf0ed8b623bf6f46fc331c/site/index.html

A way to save the rodents

EDGE’s track record suggests that using marketing techniques to raise money for wildlife conservation could increase donations aimed at helping less popular species. To estimate the difference that marketing could make in this regard, we created a mathematical model based on our analysis of the EDGE data. This is an equation that predicts donations based on a species’ appeal (which is fixed) and whether it was promoted by EDGE or shown high up on the website (which we could vary).

Partnering with an EDGE staff member, we then modeled different fundraising scenarios for the 10 most appealing and 10 least appealing animals, as rated by our conservation volunteers. With no marketing effort, our model predicted that the most appealing species would raise 10 times more money than the least appealing animals. This was in line with what we expected and supported the WWF-US strategy.

However, things changed when we modeled the impact from EDGE’s marketing efforts. If the group highlighted the least appealing species by making them prominent on its website, our model predicted a 26-fold increase in donations for those specific animals. This suggests that charities could raise conservation funds for species like bats and rodents, if they tried hard enough.

Our findings indicate that conservationists have more options than they may realize to raise money to aid wildlife.

When can marketing boost donations?

But when should they fundraise for more obscure species? The answer depends on how threatened the animal is, how much help it already gets, the cost of saving it and the chances of the project succeeding. When conservationists focus only on saving elephants, rhinos or other popular species, they often overlook these considerations.

That doesn’t mean WWF-US should end its focus on familiar animals. Since the money it raises funds broad projects that benefit more than just the “adopted” animals, catering to widespread fixations with particular species makes sense.

To be sure, our research did not measure whether marketing efforts pay off by increasing donations overall. But including more kinds of species in a campaign may boost donations – especially for endangered frogs and tarantulas or other underappreciated animals – and even plants.

It might also increase the total number of species in the public eye, highlighting the many ways everyone can help save wildlife.

Conservationists often complain animals that are important to save can get ignored. Our results suggest that they should stop complaining and start marketing.

The ConversationThe graphic containing endangered animals in this article that was originally published on June 21, 2017 was corrected on July 5, 2017. The new version contains the top five animals for EDGE’s fundraising. The old version misidentified and featured the other five in the group’s top 10.

Diogo Veríssimo, David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, Johns Hopkins University and Bob Smith, Director, Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scientists are accidentally helping poachers drive rare species to extinction



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The beautiful Chinese cave gecko, or Goniurosaurus luii, is highly prized by poachers.
Carola Jucknies

Benjamin Scheele, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

If you open Google and start typing “Chinese cave gecko”, the text will auto-populate to “Chinese cave gecko for sale” – just US$150, with delivery. This extremely rare species is just one of an increasingly large number of animals being pushed to extinction in the wild by animal trafficking.

What’s shocking is that the illegal trade in Chinese cave geckoes began so soon after they were first scientifically described in the early 2000s.

It’s not an isolated case; poachers are trawling scientific papers for information on the location and habits of new, rare species.

As we argue in an essay published today in Science, scientists may have to rethink how much information we publicly publish. Ironically, the principles of open access and transparency have led to the creation of detailed online databases that pose a very real threat to endangered species.

We have personally experienced this, in our research on the endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard, a startling creature that resembles a snake. Biologists working in New South Wales are required to provide location data on all species they discover during scientific surveys to an online wildlife atlas.

But after we published our data, the landowners with whom we worked began to find trespassers on their properties. The interlopers had scoured online wildlife atlases. As well as putting animals at risk, this undermines vital long-term relationships between researchers and landowners.

The endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella).
Author provided

The illegal trade in wildlife has exploded online. Several recently described species have been devastated by poaching almost immediately after appearing in the scientific literature. Particularly at risk are animals with small geographic ranges and specialised habitats, which can be most easily pinpointed.

Poaching isn’t the only problem that is exacerbated by unrestricted access to information on rare and endangered species. Overzealous wildlife enthusiasts are increasingly scanning scientific papers, government and NGO reports, and wildlife atlases to track down unusual species to photograph or handle.

This can seriously disturb the animals, destroy specialised microhabitats, and spread disease. A striking example is the recent outbreak in Europe of a amphibian chytrid fungus, which essentially “eats” the skin of salamanders.

This pathogen was introduced from Asia through wildlife trade, and has already driven some fire salamander populations to extinction.

Fire salamanders have been devastated by diseases introduced through the wildlife trade.
Erwin Gruber

Rethinking unrestricted access

In an era when poachers can arm themselves with the latest scientific data, we must urgently rethink whether it is appropriate to put detailed location and habitat information into the public domain.

We argue that before publishing, scientists must ask themselves: will this information aid or harm conservation efforts? Is this species particularly vulnerable to disruption? Is it slow-growing and long-lived? Is it likely to be poached?

Fortunately, this calculus will only be relevant in a few cases. Researchers might feel an intellectual passion for the least lovable subjects, but when it comes to poaching, it is generally only charismatic and attractive animals that have broad commercial appeal.

But in high-risk cases, where economically valuable species lack adequate protection, scientists need to consider censoring themselves to avoid unintentionally contributing to species declines.

Restricting information on rare and endangered species has trade-offs, and might inhibit some conservation efforts. Yet, much useful information can still be openly published without including specific details that could help the nefarious (or misguided) to find a vulnerable species.

There are signs people are beginning to recognise this problem and adapt to it. For example, new species descriptions are now being published without location data or habitat descriptions.

Biologists can take a lesson from other fields such as palaeontology, where important fossil sites are often kept secret to avoid illegal collection. Similar practices are also common in archaeology.

Restricting the open publication of scientifically and socially important information brings its own challenges, and we don’t have all the answers. For example, the dilemma of organising secure databases to collate data on a global scale remains unresolved.

For the most part, the move towards making research freely available is positive; encouraging collaboration and driving new discoveries. But legal or academic requirements to publish location data may be dangerously out of step with real-life risks.

The ConversationBiologists have a centuries-old tradition of publishing information on rare and endangered species. For much of this history it was an innocuous practice, but as the world changes, scientists must rethink old norms.

Benjamin Scheele, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Maybe we can, but should we? Deciding whether to bring back extinct species



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Immortalised on a stamp, New Zealand’s stout-legged wren went extinct in the 1990s.
Boris15/www.shutterstock.com

Gwenllian Iacona, The University of Queensland and Iadine Chadès, CSIRO

De-extinction – the science of reviving species that have been lost – has moved from the realm of science-fiction to something that is now nearly feasible. Some types of lost mammals, birds or frogs may soon be able to be revived through de-extinction technologies. The Conversation

But just because we can, does it mean we should? And what might the environmental and conservation impacts be if we did?

Prominent conservation biologist Stuart Pimm has been one of the vocal opponents of de-extinction because, among other concerns,

Without an answer to “where do we put them?” — and to the further question, “what changed in their original habitat that may have contributed to their extinction in the first place?” — efforts to bring back species are a colossal waste.

These are valid concerns, and difficult to consider in light of the many competing factors involved.

We’ve recently outlined a deliberate way to tackle this problem. Our new paper shows that an approach known as “decision science” can help examine the feasibility of de-extinction and its likely impact on existing environmental and species management programs.

Applied to the question of possible de-extinction programs in New Zealand, this approach showed that it would take money away from managing extant (still alive) species, and may lead to other species going extinct.

Solving complex problems

The potential to reverse species extinction is exciting from both a science and a curiosity perspective. But there is also great concern that in the passionate rush to implement new technology, we don’t properly consider environmental, economic and social issues.

Balancing these multiple objectives requires decision makers to understand how various project endpoints relate to all the different project goals.

Decision science methods simplify complex problems into parts that describe the benefit, cost and feasibility of the different possible solutions. They allow for “apples to apples” comparisons to be made about different but essential aspects of the projects being considered.

Decision science in action

When applied to de-extinction projects, decision science lets researchers:

  • compare different possible outcomes of de-extinction approaches
  • better understand future expected costs and benefits, and
  • see impacts of using de-extinction technology on other species that we care about.

New Zealand and New South Wales are home to more than 1,100 threatened species of conservation concern between them.

Over the past decade their management agencies have built on a decision science approach to prioritise their conservation efforts, and increase the number of species they are able to put on the road to recovery.

New Zealand in particular is a prime candidate for considering de-extinction because they have had many recent extinctions, such as the huia.

The New Zealand native bird ‘huia’ went extinct in 1907.
Photographed by Kendrick, J. L. and with thanks from NZ Department of Conservation, Author provided

These lost species fit many of the criteria for species appropriate for de-extinction technologies.

A recent study took the process that was developed to rank New Zealand species according to priority for action, and included 11 possible candidates for de-extinction in the ranking process. These were birds, frogs and plants, including the little bush moa, Waitomo frog and laughing owl.

By applying a decision science process, the authors found that adding these species to the management worklist would reduce their ability to adequately fund up to three times the number of currently managed species, and essentially could lead to additional species going extinct.

The study also showed that private agencies wishing to sponsor the return of resurrected extinct species into the wild, could instead use the money to fund conservation of over eight times as many species, potentially saving them from extinction.

Crucially, this study could not examine the initial costs of using genetic technology to resurrect extinct species, which is unknown but likely to be substantial. If it could have included such costs, de-extinction would have come out as an even less efficient option.

The laughing owl went extinct in New Zealand in 1914.
Photographed by Kendrick, J. L. and with thanks from NZ Department of Conservation, Author provided

Could de-extinction ever be the right option?

The New Zealand example is not a particularly rosy picture, but it may not always be the case that de-extinction is a terrible idea for conservation.

Hypothetically, there are situations where the novelty and excitement of a de-extinct species could act as a “flagship species” and actually attract public interest or funding to a conservation project.

There also is an interesting phenomenon where even just the possibility of having a management action such as de-extinction may change how conservation problems are formulated.

Conservation management currently aims to do the best it can, while operating under the constraint that biodiversity is a non-renewable resource. With this constraint we can apply theory that is used for managing the extraction of non-renewable resources like oil or diamonds to determine the best strategy for management.

However, if extinction was no longer forever, the problem could be considered as one that would be managing a renewable resource, like trees or fish.

Of course, the ability to revive species is nowhere near as simple as regrowing trees, and a species being revived does not necessarily equate to conservation.

But changing the way that conservation managers think about the problem could present conservation gains in addition to losses.

Theoretically, different methods may be used for conservation benefit and there may be different strategies to produce the best outcomes. For example, species that could easily be de-extinct may get less funding attention that the ones for which the de-extinction technology isn’t available, or are too costly to produce.

This research does not advocate for or against de-extinction, rather, it provides strategies to deal with alternatives from the start with a clear representation of the trade-offs.

This work aims to step back and take a realistic look at the implications of new technology, including its costs and its risks, within the context of other conservation actions. Decision theory helps to do just that.

Gwenllian Iacona, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland and Iadine Chadès, Leader of the Conservation Decisions Team and Senior research scientist, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.