NZ could host revived species

University of Otago zoologist Prof Phil Seddon with a model of a moa at Otago Museum and examples...
University of Otago zoologist Prof Phil Seddon with a model of a moa at Otago Museum and examples of other extinct species. Photo: Gerard O'Brien.
Reviving extinct species such as the moa is moving from science fiction to science fact and a Dunedin researcher is leading a worldwide debate on which animals should be brought back.

After leading a United Nations-linked team of scientists who came up with a set of guidelines for bringing back animals species, University of Otago zoologist Prof Phil Seddon says New Zealand could be the perfect place to revive extinct animals.

But before scientists got to work reviving the moa or the huia, they would need to be sure reintroducing them would not do more harm than good.

That is where the guidelines, which were published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) last year, would come in.

Prof Seddon said advances in cloning, which  meant people could already get their pet dogs cloned in Korea, and genetic engineering, meant it was probably only a matter of time before extinct animals were brought back.

Until recently, technological advancements had far outpaced discussion about the risks of reintroducing extinct animals to the environment.

The IUCN guidelines were about addressing that gap, but some of its conclusions had proved controversial.

Prof Seddon said some felt it was too focused on the risks and not on the benefits.

Those risks included people becoming blase about animals becoming extinct, because they believed it would be easy to bring them back, reintroduced animals becoming invasive species and the huge cost that would be involved.

The ecological gap that extinct species once filled might also no longer exist, which meant species could become re-extinct.

This risk was magnified the longer an animal had been extinct.

These risks meant scientists needed to be careful when choosing what animals to bring back and judge whether their reintroduction would be successful.

If successful, reintroduced animals could become flagship species for conservation, restore biodiversity and bring economic benefits through tourism.

The team’s answer on whether extinct animals could truly be brought back also proved controversialProf Seddon and his colleagues believed even if extinct animals were cloned they would inevitably different from their forefathers — meaning "extinction is forever".

This was because the original clone would be a surrogate, meaning it would be brought up by an animal from a different species.

The environment the revived species lived in would also be different.

This conclusion was disputed by some proponents of de-extinction, including the group which ran San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo, which cryogenically preserves animal cells.

"They don’t like the idea that whatever you do you are not going to get back to the original."

Prof Seddon felt New Zealand, especially if the Government’s predator-free aim came to fruition, was a good place for bringing back animals, as it had long been at the forefront of "challenging and risky conservation measures".

"We are really good at getting rid of predators, so why not get really good at bringing [back animals], as well."

Since the guidelines were published last May, Prof Seddon had guest-edited a special section of the journal Functional Ecology dedicated to the topic.

The collection of papers, due to be published earlier this year, examined in more detail some of the implications of brining species back from extinction.

For example, if moa were brought back, would the Department of Conservation be responsible for the costly job of managing the population and would this come at the cost of conserving other species?

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