De-extinction has possibilities for saving wildlife, but it needs some examination through the lens of science and ethics.

A saber-tooth cat fossil. Photo: Shutterstock

De-extinction, the process of recreating and reintroducing extinct species, may seem like science fiction, Jurassic Park comes to mind, but there is some real potential for the concept. Some scientists think that it is simply a matter of time before we are able to re-create extinct animals like wooly mammoths. While bringing mammoths and saber-tooth cats back to life could certainly be fascinating, there are questions about why, or if, we should do this.

De-extinction seems most obviously to serve one of two purposes: Building a zoo or conservation. In the case of conservation, there are some important questions that must be asked:

  • Can the species in question actually be reintroduced? The natural habitat of the wooly mammoth is long gone, but the home of the Christmas Island pipistrelle bat is still here.
  • Can we create enough members of the species that they will be able to fulfill an ecological niche? Not enough wolves is as big a problem as too many wolves.

The bottom line is that de-extinction could be a very valuable tool for conservation, but as such, it is likely better used to re-create species that have recently gone extinct, and which are needed for ecological health. For example, the above-mentioned pipistrelle bats were the only insectivore bats on Christmas Island, and their loss can be felt throughout that ecosystem. Re-creating them and reintroducing them to their native ecosystem could be an extremely valuable process. So could re-creating recently extinct rhino or tortoise species.

Re-creating wooly mammoths or dinosaurs, though, might not serve such a positive function. The ecological niche for long-extinct species no longer exists. Re-creating them could lead to another extinction or it could ruin the ecosystems into which they were introduced. Invasive species are a major ecological problem as it is.

De-extinction certainly has potential, but that potential needs to be carefully considered with both science and ethics in mind.