Posts tagged San Diego Zoo

Are All Animals Doomed to Extinction? Part 2: The Frozen Zoo

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This is the second in my series on de-extinction technology, the increasing rate of animal extinction, and more. Click HERE to read the first article.

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To start, I’ll tell you the first of humanity’s hopes for the survival of Earth’s fauna: a genetic sampling collection, or in the words of the San Diego Zoo, a “Frozen Zoo.”  The reason I mentioned Angalifu, the late white rhino from the San Diego Zoo, in Part 1 of this series is because the rhino is now part of an incredible task being undertaken: creating a frozen collection of any animal that dies at the Zoo, including tissue, sperm/eggs, stem cells, and anything else that may be useful for later use. They have been doing this for 40 years already, and have amassed so much genetic data that the Zoo now represents the largest frozen gene bank in the world, including rare samples such as the white rhino’s.

This technique holds great promise, one of which is cloning or bringing a species back to life; however, creating one or two of these rhinos or Po’ouli birds isn’t what scientists are trying to achieve. The goal is rather to get these animals back into the wild as part of a stable population. But, when the animals that are “created” are the only ones that can repopulate the whole rhino species, that can lead to genetic complications, such as inbreeding. Yet many other species have come back from a very small population, so if we can someday produce a large handful of genetically distinct white rhinos (i.e., not clones of one or two individuals) then there is a chance that they could grow their population back up to a stable point in the wild.

Even after this major technical hurdle is cleared, another key obstacle would be to avoid the poaching that prompted the fall of this great species in the first place, but that’s a story for another day. Yet for now, poaching does raise a new point, and one that hurts the case for all of the Jurassic Park fans who want pet velociraptors (or perhaps more realistically, pet Dodo birds): where would we put these animals, and how would they get re-introduced into the modern ecosystem that has already adapted to life without them?

The short answer is: they can’t really. After an ecosystem has gone so long without a certain species, reintroducing the species back to the wild risks disrupts the new harmony, and may even make the reintroduced species act as an invasive species. As our goal is to keep our environment as harmonic as possible, disrupting that just because Velociraptor African safaris make great business hopefully won’t happen anytime soon.

What I’m trying to say is that the goal of all this time and money invested in this cause is not to bring back extinct species, but rather to bring back extant species that are hovering on the brink of extinction, such as the white rhino. The species the scientists are targeting have only just vacated their natural habitats, preferably due to unfortunate human eradication, as those are the species where we have a clearer moral obligation to try to intercede. Bringing these species back to a stable population, which has been completed before with various raptor species and others, is the goal of all this hard work from many talented people.

Make sure to check back here soon for the last two installments in this series!

 

Are All Animals On Earth Doomed For Extinction? – Part 1

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Back in December, at the San Diego Zoo, a 44-year-old white rhinoceros named Angalifu died. Angalifu was one of the last five white rhinoceroses in the world, and unfortunately, each of the remaining four is unable to reproduce. What does that mean? Well, for now it means that the white rhinoceros is doomed to extinction, at least in its original state.

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Angalifu, the late White Rhino.

This isn’t something new. It is hard to know what share of species goes extinct each year, as we don’t even know how many species there are on our wonderful planet. Science’s best estimates are that we lose roughly 0.01% to 0.1% of our species annually, which doesn’t seem that drastic at first, but actually translates to an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 species per year. 100,000! Never should the highlight of a year be a picture of Kim Kardashian on a magazine rather than the incredible amount of animals that died off in that year. In fact, extinction rates are so high, 1,000% to 10,000% higher than past non-altered extinction rates, that many are calling this episode the sixth mass extinction of all time. Keep in mind that historically, a mass extinction has been an asteroid slamming into the Earth. That’s not something we as humans want to emulate, and yet, we are heading toward that magnitude of an event faster than ever, with no real plan to stop it. Of course, we aren’t there just yet. It is estimated that by mid-century 30% to 50% of all species on Earth will go extinct, rivaling both the Triassic/Jurassic extinction and the Late Devonian mass extinction, considered two of the five biggest mass extinctions of all time. We are clearly at a point that we have to start doing something; a third of all amphibians are already going extinct, at a rate of 25,000-45,000 times the background or normal extinction rate. Even primates, our closest relative on this planet, have 50% of their population at risk of extinction. We aren’t on a good path here.

We are heading closer and closer to emulating an event like this.

We are heading closer and closer to emulating an event like this.

I’m not writing this just to depress you, though. We do have some hope, if not a way to stop the ultimate demise of much of the life on earth. As much as I wish it weren’t true, there is most likely no economical way to halt the pace of the industrial growth that is compromising our natural resources and habitats. Based on persistent long-term trends, it appears that sooner or later we will all be living in an urban or suburb environment (or a dustbowl, if you are Matthew McConaughey), and the associated environmental damage will be very hard to reverse. But this doesn’t mean that the affected species can’t come back from the dead. Although we aren’t exactly there yet, with a failed try at bringing an extinct species bucardo (a type of Spanish Ibex) back to life ending in a deformed baby dying soon after birth, we are getting extremely close. We all know that Jurassic Park is a fiction, as even the more recent Woolly Mammoth is too far back in time to clone. But, there are plenty of recently extinct species that are well on their way to being cloned, such as the Hawaii Po’ouli bird and more. This may be commonplace in the future, the cloning and repopulation of dying species. Earth’s animals are precious and define our planet; we want to protect them from our destructive impact for as long as we can. This is the first part in a 4 part series on de-extinction, increasing extinction rates, conservation technology and more. Check back the next installment in the series soon!

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Image credit: Bill Marsh
Sources:
http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/biodiversity/biodiversity/
http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/ 
http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/extinction_events
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/04/125-species-revival/zimmer-text
http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110823/full/news.2011.498.html
 
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