Extinct Animals You Might See Alive Someday Soon
Traditionally speaking bringing long extinct animals back from the dead has been left to fiction writers, and boy, we sure got some good stories out of that! Science fiction and fantasy writers have been toying with dinosaurs since we first realized they weren't dragons. Maybe this is why we find the idea so fascinating and hard to put out of our minds. I am sure just about every child must have wondered what it was like to have a pet dinosaur and ride it to school. As adults some of us continue to wonder, and a few of those people are getting into brand new fields of biology where the seemingly impossible is starting to become possible. Ethics professors drool at the opportunity to discuss whether or not we should even go in this direction. What is an extinct animal going to do? Live in a zoo as the last of its kind? Surely we can't release a herd of woolly mammoths into our national parks and expect them to thrive. The ice and snow they used to live in has turned mostly to hot deserts. This dilemma will continue but as usual science is a way of expressing an unquenchable curiosity. I believe it's just human nature to keep plowing forward, no matter how many people are shaking their heads. That being said, here's a list of creatures you may be lucky enough to see alive sometime in the near future.
The First Prehistoric Animal to Come Back - Tarpans
Wild horses have been a source of fascination for quite a while as they don't really exist anymore, at least not in the same sense they did when our ancestors painted them on cave walls. European wild horses were called Tarpans. They were wild animals in the truest sense having never felt the touch of domestication. Of course some of them were brought into captivity and were the founding stock that created domestic horses later on. During this time wild herds continued to exist for a few thousand years alongside their greatly diversifying domestic cousins.
In 1887 the last proven Tarpan died at the Moscow zoo. We destroyed their habitat, dragged too many of them into captivity, allowed others to cross breed with domestic and feral horses, and we even hunted them as they were considered a delicacy. In the end they went extinct and as early as 1928 we were starting to kick ourselves for this. Heinz and Lutz Heck were respectably a geneticist and two zoologists. They decided they were going to bring the Tarpan back. They didn't have all the fancy technology we have today but they did have the knowledge that all evolving species carry the genes of their ancestors and with proper "back breeding" old traits can be bred back into existence.
They took wild Asian horses, called Przwalskis, and cross bred them with other horse breeds they felt had the primitive attributes they were looking for. Icelandic ponies, Swedish Gotlands, and Koniks, were all used in this process. The end result was the Heck horse, an animal that bore the startling resemblance of the old cave paintings. These were small pony-sized horses with an intense durability and tolerance to cold. It was an impressive achievement but not one that had very good PR. You see Heinz and Heck operated under the Nazi regime, with funding given to them by none other than Nazis. During the war they got their breeding animals from Nazi looted zoos and even the Bialowieza National Park in Poland. This heritage would continue to dog their creations even today. Many believe the Heck horses to be little more than the recreations of an original - something that looks like an ancestral horse but probably doesn't share enough genetic make-up to be a wild horse. Today these horses have been kept in existence by enthusiasts. Several small herds even live semi-wild in various European nature preserves to better illustrate what paleolithic European forests may have been like.
Passenger Pigeons used to be the most populous birds in North America. They traveled in flocks so large they could black out the sky for hours or even days as they flew by. In fact they were so numerous we didn't think anything of hunting them to extinction as a source of cheap meat. Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon known, died at the Cincinnati zoo, in 1914. Her carcass was stuffed as a taxidermied specimen, one of many still in collections today. Martha's feathers, as well aas other specimens, had their DNA successfully read. Ben Novak, a passenger pigeon expert, is now working full time on his project of choice - resurrecting the pigeon. He, and the others at Revive and Restore, that support him, are hoping that any resulting chicks could potentially be raised, bred, and have their offspring successfully released back into the wild. Such lofty goals. I'm not sure that will happen but I do think there may be a baby passenger pigeon hatched someday soon.
Dodo Birds and Moas
If passenger pigeons are successfully restored we will get to look forward to scientists looking at other bird species to revive. Two of the most iconic of these would be the Dodo bird and the Moa. Dodo birds attained much fame for being written into the beloved classic Alice in Wonderland but they were real animals that were driven to extinction in less than 80 years when the island they were living on became a resting point for sailors. They were unaccustomed to humans and had no fear of them which made hunting them very easy. They were also devastated by the pigs and other livestock purposely released onto the island by passing sailors in the hopes they would breed and be another source of food later on. Dodo birds would have one major challenge - finding DNA. The best specimen might be a specimen once owned by the British Museum (now held by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.) The bad part of this is its not a properly taxidermied specimen - at least not anymore. In an attempt to save space someone decided to incinerate the body of the dodo bird and just keep the charred head and feet. Who knows if these still have viable DNA or if the dodo bird will forever remain in the extinction zone.
Moas are another iconic bird that have the imagination of many. They were at one point the tallest birds in the world, standing twelve feet tall. They were also carnivorous and may have devoured a human or two. None the less, when the Maori people arrived on the island some 700 years ago, it didn't take them long at all to hunt and eat the giant bird to extinction. This process was made all the quicker by the bird's painfully slow growing process. It may have taken several years before it grew mature enough to have offspring of its own. Most bird species today are mature well before a year of age, a strategy used for avoiding the total species collapse that might be caused by predators otherwise. The Moa may have been a victim of living in an environment with no mammalian predators. They didn't stand a chance - however Moa feathers still exist in the old cloaks made by the Maori. Perhaps they have the DNA needed for the rebirth of the killer bird?
Tasmanian Tigers, also known as Thylacines, went officially extinct in 1936 when the last one died in a zoo. They were hunted to extinction for the fear they would eat the sheep of farmers. Until their ultimate demise they even had a price on their head from the government. Now that they are gone many have rethought the poor animals mass genocide. Stuffed specimens still exist, as do bones, and even one precious baby is preserved in a jar of alcohol which has amazing DNA preserving properties. The biggest problem is finding an appropriate surrogate mother. Thylacines were the only large carnivorous marsupial to live in Tasmania. Today no large carnivorous marsupials exist to take its place and this is important. Marsupials give birth to their babies when they are the size of a fingernail. These tiny maggot-like babies wiggle through their mom's fur where they attach to a nipple. They will stay attached to this nipple for many weeks. If they are removed even once they'll be unable to reattach and will starve. When the baby is big enough they will start coming out of their mom's protective pouch and explore the world a bit. Could we replicate this? Or find another creature who can? Right now it seems unlikely but science is always pushing forward...
Saber-toothed tigers have had our hearts and minds for centuries. They lived at the same time as our early ancestors and we may or may not have been what caused them to die off. Since they went extinct relatively recently, 11,000 years ago, we have been able to find many of their bones, particularly well preserved ones have been found en masse at the Labrea Tar Pits. This might yeild the DNA needed to bring them back. Even more interesting is that we have the perfect surrogate moms to cultivate these precious kittens - lions and tigers. These real big cats have enough similarities to carry the kittens without their body rejecting them outright. Besides this they come into season fairly frequently and we can always use animals that are not suitable for breeding more of themselves (either because of cross breeding or unknown ancestry.) Although lions and tigers struggle to maintain their existence in the wild, in captivity we actually have a large abundance of them at zoos and in the hands of private owners. Who knows - we might finally learn how saber toothed cats really used their enormous front teeth.
Mammoths are a curious species. They died out in the last ice age, which coincidentally may have frozen them in a cryogenic-like status. Today you can still find entire mammoth carcasses frozen deep in the ice with all their hair, teeth, skin, and meat in tact. In fact many are found when sled dogs dig them up and try to eat them. There are even legends of various expeditions eating mammoth flesh that's been frozen for millions of years. Could this freezing process have kept their DNA intact? Yes, but there is a problem. A cloned mammoth would still need a womb to grow in. We would have to find an elephant mother willing to carry and give birth to a grotesquely hairy baby. This topic has been brought up many times. There are people on all sides, some who want to see a baby mammoth, others who think bringing them back would be foolish, pointless, and potentially cruel. So far elephant wombs are a somewhat hard to rent commodity. Elephants only ovulate once every five years. At that point her tiny egg would have to be found and collected and to make it all the more complicated it may take hundreds of eggs to successfully clone a mammoth to the point of implantation. The ethical concerns have stopped research in the US. However Japan is claiming to be working on a project cloning the DNA of a Russian mammoth and replacing the DNA of an elephant egg with that of their newly sequenced mammoth DNA. They hope to bring the project to completion in as little as five years... however Japan has taken a lot of hits in the past year between nuclear meltdowns and tsunamis. No one knows if this research is ongoing but if it is it will bring forth a whole new problem. What will they do with a baby mammoth? Their natural habitat no longer exists, in fact Japan would be a downright hot destination for the poor little fluffball. I am sure this is not the last we hear from the mammoth front.
Dinosaurs - Raptors
Today there is a new an improved process of reverse engineering. It is a lot like those used to create Heck horses but there is one important difference - these biologists are not merely breeding animals with certain characteristics, they are meddling with their genes before they're born.
Reverse engineering a dinosaur may be the only way we can ever recreate one. We know now that some dinosaurs were the ancestors to birds so all we have to do is find out what genes we can turn off or on to make a bird into a dinosaur. This might sound really complicated but at its base even laymen can understand the philosophy behind it. Basically chickens develop in their eggs with a few strange features. For one they all have teeth, backward facing dagger-like teeth, like the ones you'd see on a T-rex or a velociraptor. However at some point during their development in the egg another gene kicks in and a beak forms over these ridges, only leaving an egg tooth to crack out of the egg with (which will also disappear as the chick gets older.) Another interesting feature is that chicks have long lizard-like tails but absorb most of those vertebrae before they hatch. We already have bred chickens naturally to be featherless, or with silkie feathers similar to the down early dinosaurs may have had. We could potentially even give them scales. Right now we know what genes do most of these things so theoretically we could already be making baby chicken dinosaurs. The biggest problem right now is we haven't the foggiest how to reengineer a wing into arms and hands. If we figure this out I don't think it'll be long before someone tries it. Even scarier they could potentially try this with an emu or ostrich and get a five or six foot tall raptor. I am both enamored with idea and totally horrified. These new animals would be carnivorous with behavior we'll be completely unfamiliar with. It could end badly - or not. You decide.
Dinosaurs from Chickens.. hear it from a paleontologist
Perhaps even more disturbing than bringing back dinosaurs would be bringing back neanderthals. They were not the grandfathers of modern humans, rather they were cousins, a closely related human species that just wasn't completely like us. The problem with this is we are used to some animals having cousin species - just look at how many different types of monkeys and eagles there are, but we're not used to having another human species... would it have the rights of a human or would we treat it as we do apes? How would we communicate? How would we bring them into the world? A modern human woman would have to carry the child. Would she then be the one responsible for taking care of it? The ethical issues are enormous but the fact we have a lot of bone specimens of this fairly recently extinct creature could bring it back into the limelight.