Walking With Dinosaurs: Assessing the Reality of De-Extinction

by Julia Reese

This past summer, with the release of the wildly popular “Jurassic World”, Chris Pratt and company reminded us why we fell in love with “Jurassic Park” in the first place. Humans running around with dinosaurs – the idea is absurd, but it speaks so deeply to our inner child that it’s hard not to feel giddy at the possibility. Too bad it’s impossible to make this a reality, right?

Well, it might not actually be as crazy as it seems. There has been a growing amount of interest in the scientific field around the idea of “de-extinction,” or the use of preserved DNA to recreate extinct species. As Carl Zimmer reported in National Geographic, the technology to revive extinct animals has almost been perfected, and de-extinction has accordingly received a lot of attention from the scientific community and the general public alike. What might sound like a chance to make “Jurassic Park” a reality is actually a concept that some scientists take quite seriously. These professionals feel that even if it is technically possible to bring a species back to life, there are certain standards that potential de-extinction candidates should meet before we earnestly attempt to bring them back. According to these proposed guidelines, do dinosaurs make the long list of potentially revivable species?

The specifications, put forth by a few researchers in Trends in Evolution and Ecology, are meant to ensure that if time and energy are put into reviving a species, it will ultimately be successful in its second chance at life. This means that ideal de-extinction candidates should have had a definite ecological role in their community that has not been filled by another species since their extinction. An example is the niche that wooly mammoths held in the steppes of Russia. Their constant grazing ensured that the environment remained a grassland. However, in the 12,000 years since mammoths went extinct, the grassland has turned into a tundra in the absence of a large grazing mammal. This has greatly reduced the ecological diversity of the area and contributed to the melting of permafrost – these are effects that reintroduced grazing animals could help reverse. Additionally, a species capable of resurrections should have a suitable habitat to return to. If a species disappeared at least partly due to habitat loss, their native habitat should have been restored to its original state. These qualifications reflect that, at its heart, de-extinction is a conservation issue.

Beyond these preliminary standards, there are several other guidelines that the authors of the study suggest. For instance, the threat that a resurrected species may pose to species currently inhabiting the potential relocation habitat should be recognized and minimized. Additionally, in case the resurrection and reintroduction do not go as planned (in the style of “Jurassic Park”), the animal should be easily captured and removed from its new environment.

Having established these and many other specifications (12 in total), the authors of the study go on to apply them to three prospective de-extinction candidates, one of which is the Yangtze River dolphin. This species was native to the Yangtze River of China and was officially declared extinct in 2006, mostly due to the huge increase of human use of the river. Unfortunately, it is exactly this cause of extinction that directed the authors of the study to determine that the dolphin is probably not an acceptable de-extinction candidate. Although it is illegal to hunt or actively kill the dolphins, no other law has been put in place to protect the dolphins from the degradation of the habitat, including high volumes of shipping traffic that interfere with the sonar that the blind dolphins use to find their prey.

As in the case of the Yangtze River dolphin, making de-extinction a reality may not be as straightforward as the utilization of technology that we have already developed. Even for animals for whom we have preserved DNA (which is rare in itself), there are many other factors that come into play when considering candidates for de-extinction, which means that we probably won’t be running around with dinosaurs anytime soon.

However, just like Chris Pratt and the other characters in “Jurassic World”, it does give us a momentary detour into a wonderland with the dinosaurs, roaming the grasslands with the long-necked herbivores and being chased by the lethal velociraptors. Even though de-extinction may not be a possibility in the near future, hold on to your horses for it may just be right around the corner!