14 Extinct Animals That Could Be Resurrected

Photo: Elenarts/Shutterstock

Can lost species become un-extinct? In the 1993 film "Jurassic Park," dinosaurs are cloned back to life after their DNA is found intact within the bellies of ancient mosquitoes preserved in amber. While the science of cloning is still in its infancy, many scientists believe it's only a matter of time before extinct animals again walk the Earth.

To successfully clone an extinct animal, scientists need to find animal DNA that is almost entirely intact, so some species will make better candidates for resurrection than others. For instance, recently extinct animals that have been preserved in museums make good candidates, as do ancient animals that were preserved in permafrost during the last ice age.

Because of the sheer amount of time that has passed, dinosaurs make unlikely candidates. A real-life Jurassic Park is probably best reserved for the imagination, but a real-life Pleistocene Park? Well, that's another story. Here's our list of 14 extinct animals that could be resurrected, thanks to cloning.

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Woolly mammoth

Photo: Mauricio Antón [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Harvard researchers say they're getting close to creating a hybrid embryo with genes of a woolly mammoth introduced into its closest living relative, an Asian elephant. The creature is sometimes referred to as a "mammophant," reports the Guardian. It would be somewhat elephant-like, but have mammoth qualities such as shaggy hair, small ears and cold-adapted blood. The team says they are still several years away from creating a living creature.

In April 2018, researchers announced they had isolated and "resurrected" 44 woolly mammoth genes, reports CNET. The hope is that this gene editing could be used to create hybrid elephants. "My goal is not to bring back the mammoth; it's to bring back mammoth genes and show that they work and that we have already done it," Harvard professor George Church says.

In a "first step" toward resurrecting the mammoth, researchers from Russia and South Korea are working to bring back another extinct animal, the Lena horse, using cells from a 40,000-year-old foal found in Siberia.

"[I]f we get the living cell from the ancient tissue it will be unique by itself, because no one managed to do this before," cloning expert Hwang Woo Suk tells the Siberian Times. "And if we manage to clone the horse, it will be the first step to cloning the mammoth. It will help us to work out the technology."

Some people have raised ethical questions about this goal, however.

"The proposed 'de-extinction' of mammoths raises a massive ethical issue — the mammoth was not simply a set of genes, it was a social animal, as is the modern Asian elephant," says Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester. "What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by elephants?"

Mammoths make particularly good candidates for resurrection because they went extinct so recently and because many intact specimens have been found frozen in the Arctic tundra.

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Tasmanian tiger

Photo: Baker; E.J. Keller [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was a remarkable animal native to Australia and the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times. The animals went extinct as recently as the 1930s, largely due to bounty hunting and lack of genetic diversity.

Because they went extinct so recently, specimens of the animal remain intact, pickled and preserved in museum jars. Some specimens that have been stuffed and displayed in museums may also still retain DNA. Projects to clone the thylacine are already well under way, and some of the animal's genes have already been successfully expressed in a mouse fetus after the genes were inserted into the mouse's genome.

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Pyrenean ibex

Photo: Joseph Wolf [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Still think cloning extinct animals is impossible? Technically, it's already been done: the Pyrenean ibex recently became the first extinct animal to ever become un-extinct — at least, for seven minutes. The cloned fetus, which contained reanimated DNA from the last known living Pyrenean ibex, was successfully brought to term after being implanted in the womb of a living domestic goat. Although the ibex died of lung difficulty seven minutes after birth, the breakthrough ensures the inevitability of resurrecting extinct species.

The last known Pyrenean ibex was a female named Celia, who was killed by a falling tree in 2000. It was her DNA that was used to create the short-lived clone.

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Saber-toothed cats

Photo: Sfocato/Shutterstock

Looking at the epic canine teeth of these once-fearsome cats of Pleistocene lore, you may wonder whether resurrecting saber-toothed cats is a good idea. Nevertheless, they certainly make good candidates. Not only did they go extinct relatively recently — about 11,000 years ago — but fossil specimens have survived into modern times thanks to the frigid habitats they once roamed. Several intact specimens have also been recovered from ancient tar deposits, like those at the La Brea Tar Pits.

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Photo: George Edward Lodge [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

These giant flightless birds, similar in appearance to ostriches and emus but without vestigial wings, were once the world's largest birds. Because moas were hunted to extinction as recently as 600 years ago, their feathers and eggs can still be found relatively intact. In fact, moa DNA has already been extracted from ancient eggshells, and projects to clone the moa have already been attempted.

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Photo: Biodiversity Heritage Library [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Perhaps the world's most notorious extinct animal, the dodo was driven to extinction a mere 80 years after its discovery. Since the bird's habitat on the island of Mauritius contained no natural predators, the dodo evolved to have no fear of humans and was easily clubbed to death (although it is still the national animal of Mauritius!).

The dodo may soon be reborn if scientists can locate enough DNA to create a clone that could be implanted in the eggs of closely related modern pigeons. For example, DNA samples have recently been retrieved from museum samples housed at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, making the dodo a good candidate for this process.

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Ground sloth

Photo: Dallas Krentzel [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Look at the fossil remains of this ancient creature and you might believe you're looking at a giant bear. In fact, these elephantine animals were ground sloths, most closely related to the slumbering modern-day three-toed sloth. They make good candidates for resurrection because they went extinct so recently — giant ground sloths may have still walked the Earth just 8,000 years ago at the dawn of human civilization. DNA samples have already been extracted from intact hair remains.

Because the only surviving relatives of the ground sloth are tiny by comparison, finding a surrogate mother is impossible. But it may someday be possible to develop a fetus in an artificial womb.

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Carolina parakeet

Photo: James St. John [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Once the only parrot species native to the United States, the Carolina parakeet was tragically driven to extinction after being hunted for its feathers, which were popular in ladies' hats. The last known specimen died as recently as 1918, and because stuffed birds, remnant feathers and eggshells can still be found in circulation and in museums, DNA extraction and cloning of the species could soon become a possibility. Some historians have already called for such a project to begin.

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Woolly rhinoceros

Photo: Charles R. Knight [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

The woolly mammoth wasn't the only massive hairy creature to drag its scraggy dreads over the chilly Pleistocene tundra. The woolly rhinoceros also stomped through the Arctic snow as recently as 10,000 years ago. The animal also appears frequently in ancient cave art, such as at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in France.

For all of the same reasons that the woolly mammoth makes a good candidate for resurrection, so it is with the woolly rhino as well. Well-preserved specimens frequently become exposed in Arctic permafrost.

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Passenger pigeon

Photo: Seabamirum [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

As recently as 200 years ago, flocks of passenger pigeons numbering in the billions blanketed the North American sky. By 1914, the species had been wiped out by merciless hunting campaigns. Now thanks to cloning technology, the animal that was once the most numerous bird in North America might have a second chance. Museum specimens, feathers and other remnants of these birds still exist, and because they are so closely related to the mourning dove, finding a surrogate mother would be easy.

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Irish elk

Photo: Charles R. Knight [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Another megafauna to fall victim to the ending of an ice age was the Irish elk. Calling this animal an elk is actually a misnomer, as recent DNA analysis has shown that it was actually a deer — in fact, the largest deer to have ever lived. Its antlers alone measured as much as 12 feet across. As with other animals that lived in the icy north during the Pleistocene, preserved specimens of the Irish elk can be readily found in melting permafrost, making it a prime candidate for being cloned.

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Baiji River dolphin

Photo: Jonathan Latiano [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Declared "functionally extinct" in 2006, the Baiji River dolphin became the first cetacean to go extinct in modern times due primarily to human influence. Because of its recent extinction, however, DNA can still be easily extracted from remains. In fact, efforts to retrieve and store the animal's DNA are under way.

Like with many extinct species, however, the question remains about whether the Baiji River dolphin would have a home to return to after being resurrected. The Yangtze River system, where this dolphin was found, remains heavily polluted.

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Photo: Haplochromis [CC by 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

This uniquely beaked bird, once endemic to the North Island of New Zealand, became extinct in the early 20th century after museum demand for mounted specimens reached a peak. Due in part to the bird's popularity as a mascot and national symbol within New Zealand, a project was recently launched and approved to clone and resurrect the huia.

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Photo: Paul Hudson [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

The Neanderthal is perhaps the most controversial extinct species eligible for cloning and resurrection, primarily due to logistics: The surrogate species would be us. As the most recently extinct member of the Homo genus, Neanderthals are widely considered a subspecies of modern humans. Cloning them might be controversial, but it could also be illuminating.

A Neanderthal clone would also probably be most viable. Scientists have already completed a rough draft of the Neanderthal genome, for instance.

The question is not so much “could we do this?” but “should we?”