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Natural Perspectives: Priority should be preventing extinction

December 07, 2011|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • This Peninsular bighorn sheep ram at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is part of a captive breeding program to produce sheep to release in the wild.
This Peninsular bighorn sheep ram at the San Diego Zoo… (Lou Murray, HB Independent )

An article in Physorg.com this week reported that a team of scientists from Japan and Russia believe that they may be able to produce a living woolly mammoth within the next five years by a cloning process. Key to their research will be finding an intact nucleus from a woolly mammoth, a species that has been extinct for 10,000 years.

They might be in luck. In August, a well-preserved thigh bone was found frozen in permafrost in Siberia. The researchers are pinning their hopes on finding cells with intact nuclei in the bone marrow.

Their plan is to transplant a cell nucleus from that mammoth's thigh bone into the egg of an elephant from which the nucleus has been removed. The egg would then be implanted into the uterus of an elephant. If the technique works, a baby mammoth would result. Except for the source of the donor nucleus, this cloning process would be identical to that used to create cloned sheep and other animals.

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But is this a priority? Resurrecting a species that has been extinct for thousands of years? Vic and I can't help but wonder why scientists are attempting to resurrect a woolly mammoth, given that so many species living on earth today are facing extinction.

For example, the latest casualty is the Western black rhino. Scientists from the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared it extinct in the wild last month. No Western black rhino has been seen in the wild in Africa since 2006.

The Southern white rhino of Africa nearly met the same fate. That population was down to fewer than 100 individuals at the end of the 19th century but has since rebounded to 20,000. The decline was due to unregulated hunting during the colonial period and habitat loss due to farming. Conservation techniques of habitat preservation and protection from hunting and poaching have allowed the species to bounce back.

One of the keys to preservation of endangered and threatened species sometimes is as simple as habitat preservation. Other measures can include captive breeding programs.

Here in Southern California, we have a number of plant and animal species on the verge of extinction. Southern California is one of 24 biodiversity hotspots in the world, meaning that we have an unusually high concentration of endemic plants and animals. These are species that are found nowhere else in the world.

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