- The reintroduction of takhi horses to the Mongolian steppes, where they had roamed for millennia before going extinct in the wild in the 1960s, is often thought of as a great accomplishment of the animal conservation movement.
- However, as this brief animated history of the takhi from TED-Ed explains, a closer look at the story raises some complex questions about the meaning of conservation, the role of zoos and the best way to keep wild animal populations thriving.
- For instance: can a population of animals descended from captive breeding programmes, and closely watched and controlled to ensure their perpetuation, truly be considered wild? And, in the instance of the takhi, can these newly released horses even be considered the same animal?
- This isn't the video I thought it was going to be.
- The takhi wasn't extinct, but had become confined to zoos. There, the breeding programme had been designed to accentuate so-called 'primitive' features of the horse - which had been thought of as a missing link between modern horses and their forebears.
- But, the video admits that takhi horses had interbred with modern horses for millennia, so how can they be considered a separate species any more than different breeds of dog?
- The video asks whether an animal bred in captivity and closely monitored can really be considered 'wild'. Maybe not, initially, but they will become feral, and their subsequent offspring will be wild (even if closely monitored 'in the wild').
- YouTube - TedEd - The last living members of an extinct species - Jan Stejskal is a more interesting video, but again - while the Northern White Rhino was functionally extinct - in that only two females survived, sperm from males had been preserved and eggs were harvested from the extant females. The plan is to use Southern white rhinos as surrogate mothers. I view this as a medical intervention and that the species has never really become extinct.
- YouTube - Real Science - How to Bring an Extinct Animal Back to Life is more philosophically interesting, involving truly extinct species. Methods include Back-Breeding (selective breeding to recreate traits had by the extinct species) or Cloning (taking somatic cells from the last survivor and injecting DNA into the gametes of a similar species). This has even been tried for Woolly Mammoths (not yet successfully). A third option is genetic engineering involving CRISPR technology to splice (say) mammoth genes into the genome of Indian Elephants (say). This is difficult at there are 1.4 million genetic mutations between the two species. But not impossible.
- My view is that if the full genome (or maybe all the important parts thereof, however defined) had somehow survived, and a technical means of re-instantiating it (by injecting its DNA into gametes of a related species and using surrogates) then an extinct species could be 'deextincted'. But if there has to be extensive genetic repair and splicing / hybridising with non-extinct species, then 'probably not'.
- There are ethical and environmental issues with all this, but I’m not particularly interested.
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