Should We Resurrect Extinct Species?

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

The movie "Jurassic Park" popularized the idea of resurrecting extinct species through the process of cloning. Although sensationalized, the film's premise isn't that far off from practical reality. That doesn't mean a real-life Jurassic Park is right around the corner; dinosaurs don't make for ideal candidates for resurrection because they went extinct so long ago. But a real-life Pleistocene Park, with woolly mammoths and sabertooth cats? That's within the realm of possibility.

Resurrection is especially viable for species that have gone extinct even more recently. Scientists are even scrambling to collect DNA samples of species that are on the verge of extinction, so they might be resurrected as a last-ditch conservation effort. It's all in the good name of preserving biodiversity.

But a new analysis of ecosystems and conservation budgets featuring University of Queensland, Australia, researchers could put a wrench in these well-laid plans. According to the report, resurrection of extinct species might create an ecological disaster rather than solve one. More species could be driven to extinction than are resurrected by such an effort, according to

The report mostly focuses on the finite financial resources available to conservation programs around the world.

But species need our help now

"If the risk of failure and the costs associated with establishing viable populations could also be calculated, estimates of potential net losses or missed opportunities would probably be considerably higher," explained University of Queensland researcher Hugh Possingham.

He added: "De-extinction could be useful for inspiring new science and could be beneficial for conservation if we ensure it doesn't reduce existing conservation resources. However, in general it is best if we focus on the many species that need our help now."

Although the team's analysis focused primarily on conservation efforts currently being funded in New Zealand and New South Wales, Australia, it could apply to similar programs elsewhere in the world, especially since the cost of the science of cloning is far greater than what conservation budgets usually require.

For instance, researchers found that government-funded conservation for 11 focal extinct species in New Zealand would sacrifice conservation for as many as 31 extant species. That's not favorable math if biodiversity is your chief concern. The contrast was even more alarming for five extinct Australian species taken under consideration. An equivalent amount of funding could be used to conserve as many as 42 extant species in that country.

Quite simply, resurrection is not a financially feasible use of resources. It's cool — it's science fiction come to life — but it's not wise.

None of this is to suggest there will never be any use for resurrection technology; researchers still think there's value in developing it. But in the midst of an extinction crisis, it's an effort that could exacerbate the problem rather than alleviate it.

"Given the considerable potential for missed opportunity, and risks inherent in assuming a resurrected species would fulfill its role as an ecosystem engineer or flagship species, it is unlikely that de-extinction could be justified on grounds of biodiversity conservation," Possingham said.

The research was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.