Have Breeders Resurrected Extinct Quaggas?

These plains zebras were bred to look just like the extinct quagga. Wiki Commons

Imagine if you could go back in time and see animals that have gone extinct roaming naturally through their environments. Which extinct creatures would you most want to witness in the flesh? Dinosaurs? Woolly mammoths? Trilobites? Neaderthals?

Unfortunately, time machines aren't any closer to being invented, but a group of breeders thinks they may have accomplished the next best thing, by breeding an extinct animal back into existence.

The so-called Quagga Project is a 30-year effort to “resurrect” quaggas, beautiful zebra-like animals that once roamed widely throughout southern Africa. The last wild quaggas went extinct back in 1878, and the last captive specimen died in 1883. There is only one quagga to ever have its photograph taken, a mare at the London Zoo back in 1870. Here's one of those rare photos:

One of only photographs ever taken of a live quagga. Wiki Commons

One of the things that makes the quagga unique, at least in terms of being a candidate for resurrection through breeding, is that it has a very close genetic relationship with a living species: the plains zebra. The idea behind the Quagga Project has therefore been to pinpoint the genes responsible for the quagga's characteristic reduced striping pattern within the genetic diversity of modern zebras, and to artificially select for those traits via a breeding program.

The project is now between four and five generations removed from where they began, and the resultant offspring are starting to look very much like quaggas.

“In fact we have over the course of 4, 5 generations seen a progressive reduction in striping, and lately an increase in the brown background color, showing that our original idea was in fact correct," said Eric Harley, the project's leader and a professor at Cape Town University, to CNN.

The animals have been called “Rau quaggas,” named after one of the project’s founders, Reinhold Rau. They're quite majestic to see roaming about, like looking back in time. But are Rau quaggas really quaggas, or are they just plains zebras that happen to look like quaggas?

The prudent answer is that Rau quaggas are only really quaggas in a superficial sense. These animals "might not be genetically the same," said project co-leader Mike Gregor, who admits that "there might have been other genetic characteristics [and] adaptations that we haven't taken into account."

On the other hand, genetic testing of skins remaining from the extinct quagga have revealed that they were more closely related to plains zebras than their unique coats may otherwise suggest. In fact, quaggas have been shown to be a subspecies of the plains zebra, not a separate species outright. This raises the possibility that enough of the quagga genetic material has survived into modern times within the plains zebra population. In other words, though quaggas went extinct, their genes might have lived on.

If this is the case, and if scientists working on the Quagga Project have successfully selected for these quagga genes, then perhaps it can be said that Rau quaggas are real quaggas after all, or at least a very close genetic approximation.

In the end, whether they can be called real quaggas or not, rau quaggas can still have symbolic importance.

"If we can retrieve the animals or retrieve at least the appearance of the quagga," said Harley, "then we can say we've righted a wrong."