Gone before their time? These 10 extinct species are certainly gone but they’re not forgotten, and they may not even be gone for good if biological technology continues to advance. Could we bring them back? Should we even try? If the answer to the former is “yes”, then the question of the latter is moot.
Great herds of Woolly Mammoths roamed over huge swathes of the northern hemisphere for tens of thousands of years, and you’d better believe they left their mark – among other things – on the frozen tundra. It’s impossible to calculate the beneficial effect of dropped dung by the megaton year after year, millennium after millennium, on the arctic environment but we can assume those vast, empty plains would be much more fertile after our shaggy pals resume dumping much more fertilizer.
(image via: DesignerAnimals2011)
Mammoths haven’t been extinct for too long, geologically speaking, with the last dwarf population on Siberia’s isolated Wrangel Island finally biting the permafrost around 1650 BC. Speaking of permafrost, hundreds of mammoths remain preserved to an astonishing, er, degree in what’s been called “nature’s freezer”, and their DNA is perhaps the least degraded of any ancient extinct creature.
Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger)
Plagues of introduced invasive rabbits, starving kangaroo herds needing to be culled – if only Australia had a native apex predator that could naturally curb animal population booms… oh wait, they did, but it’s extinct.
Though the Thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger) hasn’t roamed Australia itself for thousands of years, the species managed a last stand on the island of Tasmania along with its relative, the Tasmanian Devil. Pressure from humans (Europeans, not the native aborigines) led to the last Tasmanian Tiger dying in captivity at the Hobart Zoo in September of 1936.
(image via: Australian Government)
Sightings of what are said to be wild thylacines are reported every so often these days but more solid evidence such as hair, scat or even footprints haven’t been forthcoming. The world’s museums contain a number of thylacine remnants, however, including stuffed specimens and pups preserved in formaldehyde. Experiments to ascertain the existence of viable thylacine DNA are ongoing and it’s likely the complete Tasmanian Tiger genome will be sequenced in the very near future.
American Chestnut Tree
A century ago, huge stands of American Chestnut trees made up as much as 25 percent of forested lands in the eastern United States. From Maine to Mississippi, as many as 3 billion Chestnut trees standing up to 45 meters (150ft) tall and as much as 3 meters (10ft) wide provided food, shelter and pollen to an ecosystem much more diverse than today’s. In 1904, however, an accidentally introduced, airborne chestnut blight was noticed in trees at New York’s Bronx Zoo. The fungus spread rapidly and within a few short decades the American Chestnut tree was functionally extinct.
(image via: Treehugger)
American Chestnuts are not “extinct” in the pure sense of the word. Less than 100 mature trees survive in its former range, and trees planted in western North America by 19th century pioneers and settlers have thrived without being infected by chestnut blight. Efforts are underway to impart immunity to American Chestnut trees, ironically from the related Chinese Chestnut trees that have naturally evolved resistance to the fungus.
380 million years ago our primitive vertebrate ancestors were taking their first tentative steps onto dry land. What would compel these early proto-amphibians to leave the warm confines of earth’s primeval oceans? Dunkleosteus, perhaps. Measuring up to 10 meters (33ft) in length, weighing roughly three and a half tons and possessed of the strongest bite of any creature EVAR, this so-called “hypercarnivore” conducted a 20 million year reign of terror without stopping for a lunch break. Actually, the 20 million years WAS its lunch break.
(image via: Taburin)
Times have changed since then, and Dunkleosteus is no longer the terror of the sea… it’s no longer, period. Maybe it’s due for a revival, however. The warming oceans are rapidly being depleted of fish by the descendents of Dunkleosteus’ former prey and fisherman are finding their nets clogged with humongous jellyfish instead. If a reconstituted population of “Dunkies” could be induced to chow down on the jumbo jellyfish, what would the result be? Less jumbo jellyfish and more gigantic fish to feed those hungry hungry humans. Sounds like a plan!
Domestic cattle provide beef for our dinner tables but at what cost? Overused antibiotics and veterinary growth hormones like BSE are contaminating groundwater supplies, while standardization of beef cattle may lead to a depleted gene pool vulnerability to new diseases. One possible solution is to get back to basics by bringing back Bos Primigenius, also known as the Aurochs.
This ill-tempered ancestor to today’s cattle breeds, holdover from the Eurasian Ice Age megafauna, and star of many magnificent paleolithic cave paintings thrived in isolated areas of central Europe up until the late Middle Ages. The last recognized purebred Aurochs died in Poland, in 1627.
(image via: Dididumm)
As the Aurochs is an ancestral species with living descendants, it should be possible to “backbreed” and eventually produce an animal very close to the ancient Aurochs. In fact, the brother Heinz and Lutz Heck began back-breeding experiments in the 1920s that resulted in today’s Heck Cattle. Approximately 2,000 Heck Cattle now exist and biologists are continuing efforts to increase the size of the cattle to match that of the formidable Aurochs.
Meganeura (Giant Dragonfly)
Ancient Earth wasn’t quite a Garden of Eden, though 300 million years ago in the Carboniferous period the land was very green indeed. The air was different as well, being generally warmer with a higher ration of oxygen. It’s the latter characteristic that allowed several species of gigantic insects to survive and thrive, including Meganeura, the Giant Dragonfly. Fossil specimens display wingspans of over 75cm (2.5ft) and its estimated the creature’s diet included small amphibians.
(image via: Animal Pictures Archive)
Reintroducing Meganeura would be problematic to say the least: today’s atmosphere likely isn’t sufficiently oxygen-rich and the creature would quickly suffocate. As to WHY Meganeura should be revived, let’s recall that today’s dragonflies are potent predators of mosquitoes. Considering the damage done by mosquito-borne diseases and the fact that these illnesses are spreading, I’m willing to give Meganeura a shot at squishing the skeeters.
Smilodon (Saber-Toothed Cat)
Smilodon existed from about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago, and in its heyday was the most deadly predator North and South America had seen since T Rex. The species’ most terrifying member had to have been Smilodon Populator, which translates from Latin to “Smilodon the Devastator”. Standing 4 feet (1.22m) high at the shoulder and weighing up to half a ton or 470kg, this resident of eastern Brazil sported signature “saber” canine teeth a foot (30cm) long and ate… well, pretty much anything it wanted.
(image via: AVPH)
We may see the extinction of wild tigers in our lifetimes and lions are in decline as well. Shouldn’t we concentrate our efforts on conserving these existing species, you ask? We should and we are – and their populations are still shrinking. Bringing back saber-toothed cats, on a very limited basis, might serve as a swan song to the planet’s most majestic felines. If it doesn’t work out, well, we’ve still got the La Brea tar pits.
Steller’s Sea Cow
Steller’s Sea Cows once peacefully browsed kelp beds in the western Pacific ocean. Said to be completely tame and showing no fear of humans whatsoever, these relatives of Dugongs and Manatees were toothless having flat plates of bone instead of a regular dentition. The placid creatures were also huge: adults grew up to 9 meters (30 ft) in length and weighed up to 10 tons.
(image via: It’s Nature)
Discovered and named in 1741, Steller’s Sea Cow became extinct in 1768 – it took us a mere 27 years to wipe out a species that took countless millennia to evolve. Somehow that just doesn’t seem fair. These big boys (and girls) deserve another chance and if biology can find some way to reconstitute them as a species, it should be done.
Lepidodendron (Giant Club Moss)
Soaring 30 meters (100ft) high with massive trunks over a meter (3.3ft) in diameter, the Giant Club Moss was the undisputed giant of the Carboniferous forest. Packed several thousand to the acre, great stands of Lepidodendron rose and fell quickly: it’s estimated these early trees only lived 10 to 15 years. We owe our huge reserves of coal to the fallen forests of the Carboniferous, which coincidentally owes its name to the very beds of coal it produced.
(image via: Science Buzz)
Restoring Lepidodendron could be a tremendous boost to our energy resources. Not to produce coal – that would take millions of years – but instead as biofuel. Giant Club Moss forests could be re-established on marginal wetlands and swampy areas not used for farming; their fast growth and rapid turnover allowing for bountious harvests every decade. What’s more, Earth’s ancient Coal Forests helped sequester enormous amounts of carbon, reducing atmospheric CO2 and boosting oxygen levels… the revived Giant Dragonflies are gonna love it!
“Flintstones, meet the Flintstones…” and some day, maybe we will! The complete Neanderthal genome was successfully sequenced in 2009 and subsequent analysis indicates between 1 and 4 percent of the genes of non-African modern humans is of Neanderthal origin. Neanderthal Man may be extinct as a distinct species, however he (and she) lives on within us. Looking for a “cave man”? Try looking in the mirror.
(image via: Feminine Beauty)
Since “breeding back” isn’t a realistic option where people are concerned, possibilities of resurrecting Neanderthals revolve around preserved DNA. The last true Neanderthals walked the Earth approximately 25,000 to 30,000 years ago and such DNA which has been found is greatly degraded. It will depend on advanced gene sequencing technology available sometime in the near future whether Neanderthal DNA can be repaired sufficiently to be viable… and the next step would be finding a willing surrogate mother for little Pebbles or Bam-Bam.
(image via: Disclose TV)
In the late, great George Carlin’s epic riff on Saving The Planet, GC not only reminds us that 99.9% of all the species that ever lived are now extinct (“We didn’t kill them all”), he also points out that interfering with this natural process is just another example of arrogant human meddling. Maybe so, but we’re meddlers by nature who like to put things right if we possibly can. “Haven’t we done enough?”, Carlin asks. Indeed we have, but to quote another wise old sage (Curly from City Slickers), “the day ain’t done yet.” My guess is, neither are we.