It’s going to be a strange one to label in taxonomic records; that’s for sure. How does one categorize the extant dates of a creature brought back to life years after it went extinct?

It’s going to be a strange one to label in taxonomic records; that’s for sure. How does one categorize the extant dates of a creature brought back to life years after it went extinct?

This is one of the most minor questions facing scientists after the startling success of the nearly thirty-year Quagga Project. This project, which famously inspired Michael Crichton’s science fiction masterpiece Jurassic Park, had a simple (and seemingly impossible) goal: to resurrect a type of South African zebra known as the quagga, extinct since 1883. Much of the scientific community scoffed at the audacity of the project, dismissing it as a wild goose chase.

Consider the goose caught. The Quagga Project seems to have succeeded. As of May 2011, the group has produced an entire herd of zebras bearing many distinctive markings, both physically and genetically, of the quagga. The once dismissive scientific community was left scrambling for answers.

Are these creatures really quaggas? Outwardly, they greatly resemble the extinct sub-species of zebra the project sought to resurrect. Many of the genetic markers in the original sample of DNA (extracted from taxidermied quaggas from the 1880s) seem to match up, though a full genome is unavailable to use as a comparison. Members of the herd can freely interbreed, both with each other and with the long extant plains zebra. In many ways, it seems entirely likely that they are, indeed, quaggas.

So, if we accept that the quagga has indeed been brought back, what next? Japanese scientists claim that the resurrection of the wooly mammoth will be possible within four years. From there, should we be expecting a live-action remake of Jurassic Parkwithin the decade?

Scientific curiosity and enterprise aside, the resurrection of long-extinct creatures is ultimately a terrible idea. While observation of the animals in question would answer many lingering questions, as simple as appearance or as complex as behavior, the results would still be dependent on the assumption that the process  used to create them did not alter their genes in any way.

There is also a question of ethics intrinsic to the argument. Do we have the right to resurrect an animal solely to appease curiosity? Would possible advancements be worth condemning them to a life in captivity or in a lab? What would the environmental or ecological consequences be if they were to be let free or get loose?

Should we even attempt it?

It may not be possible. The Quagga Project used selective breeding to retrieve traits and genes similar to those of the quagga from modern zebras. This is only possible because the quagga was thought to be a sub-species of the plains zebras extant today. Because of this, the DNA retrieved from the stuffed quagga can only be used as reference. This also suggests that for an extinct creature to be brought back, a closely related animal must still be alive today.

But the resurrection of the quagga, through whatever means it has come to be, still begs all the questions outlined above and countless more. Should resurrecting extinct animals enter the realm of possibility, which seems more likely every day, these questions will need to be answered.

It should be enough to know that it would be possible. The act of bringing an animal back from extinction is one which should remain theoretical, not practical. There is much to possibly learn from a creature long gone, but the ecological, ethical and environmental risks are too great. The social implications might also leave one reeling—if it is permissible to revive a dinosaur, why not a Neanderthal or Homo erectus? What happens when it becomes a human or human ancestor?

Science has always toed the line between satisfying curiosity and adhering to ethical standards. All it takes is one slip for a scientist to go too far, and it is hard to come back. While the potential resurrection of the quagga is fascinating and inspiring, it should be the final attempt at bringing an extinct animal back.

Let the resurrection of extinct animals stay in the realm of science fiction. ?