University of Otago zoologist Phil Seddon is a
specialist in reintroduction biology, re-establishing
endangered species in protected areas. He also heads a
UN-linked international team developing policy on
''de-extinction'', exploring the possibility of bringing
extinct species back to life.
If you think bringing extinct species, such as the moa, back
to life is simply science fiction fantasy, think again.
Some scientists such as University of Otago zoologist Philip
Seddon, say such questions are moving from the realm of
science fiction into science fact.
Prof Seddon has co-authored an article on de-extinction in
the ecological journal, Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
The article has already sparked considerable international
attention, including a recent lengthy article on
''de-extinction'' in the New York Times, which refers
to his research.
He says technological advances have raised the controversial
prospect of resurrecting extinct species.
And Labour MP Trevor Mallard, perhaps inspired by this
growing international interest, has recently spoken about his
vision of 1.8m moa again roaming a forest park, in a
''snapshot of New Zealand as it once was before the arrival
of the humans''.
Prof Seddon heads an international team developing policy on
''de-extinction'' for the United Nations-linked International
Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
''I've assembled a team of 10 international conservation
experts and we've started work. It feels like both a huge
honour and a very great responsibility.''
He is well aware of the growing international interest in
bringing extinct species back to life, and re-establishing
them in a protected environment.
''The potential of de-extinction fires the imagination of
everyone, scientists and the public alike,'' he says.
''How cool would it be to see a woolly mammoth?''Although
some people had been critical of bringing back moa, the
possibility of ''de-extincting'' some extinct animals was
And, he points out, ''it's already happened'' in the case of
the ''de-extincting''of a European mountain goat.
Conservation authorities around the world were now taking
this concept ''very seriously''.
Some people are horrified at talk of ''de-extinction', partly
because they fear that if extinct species can be brought back
to life, this will distract resources and attention from the
more urgent task of saving endangered species from the
imminent risk of extinction.
But there could be a positive side to some
carefully-considered ''de-extinctions'', he says.
''The possibility of bringing back a species must raise
questions about whether there is suitable habitat and could
even be a major incentive for habitat restorations.
''And good habitat for mammoths, or moa or huia, will also be
good habitat for a multitude of other native species.''
Overseas researchers recently cloned an extinct type of
European mountain goat from tissue, using an egg cell of a
domestic goat, which also acted as a surrogate mother.
However, the kid died within a few minutes of birth.
Prof Seddon argues de-extinction ought to be more than a
If you want to resurrect a species, ''the idea is not to
create something that's a curiosity in a zoo''.
It should be for some ecological gain- putting a species back
into a suitable habitat to do the kind of things it used to
Teams of South Korean and Russian scientists are already
working to reconstruct the DNA of Siberian mammoths, to
possibly try to bring them back from extinction. And New
Zealand has developed internationally recognised skills in
reintroducing threatened animals, such as birds we have
protected on offshore islands.
The New Zealand public will need to think ''very carefully''
about what it wants.
Bringing back the huia, a small wattle bird which was last
confirmed seen in 1907, and a small species of moa are among
They could live in protected areas in national parks if New
Zealanders wanted them to make a comeback, he says.
Born to New Zealand parents, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England,
Prof Seddon returned to New Zealand at the age of 3, living
first in Auckland for 10 years, then in Wellington.
He later moved to Dunedin, where he gained an MSc (Hons)
degree in zoology and then a PhD at Otago University.
''I have always been interested in animals and animal
behaviour, and was an early devourer of TV wildlife
''I started out looking at the behaviour of penguins, the
yellow-eyed penguin in New Zealand and then the African
penguin in South Africa and Namibia.
''Because both these species were threatened and in decline,
it sparked my interest in conservation biology, the
management and protection of endangered species.''
When Prof Seddon is not at university, family is a ''major
part'' of his life.
And he and his wife, fellow Otago academic Yolanda van
Heezik, and their two boys (10) and (17) enjoy outdoor
activities together, including ''tramping, snorkelling,
surfing, and snowboarding''. He also holds a black belt in
The New Zealand public ''needs a say in how we manage our
cultural heritage'', he says.
Ultimately, the public should decide if de-extinction is a
positive move, or if scarce conservation funding can be
better spent saving what we still have.
Name: Phil Seddon (51)
Occupation: University of Otago zoologist
Qualifications: PhD in zoology
Where did you train: University of Otago
Work history: Cape Town University, and Saudi Arabia,
working in protected areas, and on species restoration
Proudest: Member of international group writing
guidelines for international species reintroductions
THE CHALLENGE:REINTRODUCING EXTINCT ANIMALS
What is it about? It is now technically possible to
resurrect extinct species, but should we, and if we do, which
Why is it important? The possibility of species
de-extinction raises many challenges to the conservation of
existing species. What if extinction is not forever?
Most interesting aspect? Appreciating the implications
of new technology and ensuring it is applied for conservation
How the science works: DNA is obtained from bones or
other remnants of extinct species, the DNA reconstructed,
sometimes using related species, and a host animal helps
bring the lost species back to life.
Reintroduction biology: Involves moving threatened
species - for instance, plants or animals from a captive
collection or wild population - back into suitable habitat in
areas where they used to be.