How humans threaten pumas just by being nearby

Justine Smith, University of California, Santa Cruz

You are wandering in the forest where you live, thinking about what you are going to have for dinner. Among the familiar calls of chickadees, you hear a foreign sound. You crouch in hiding, frightened for yourself and your family. Not until nightfall does the noise abate, allowing you to move again under the cloak of darkness. Soon you learn that the sounds come from unfamiliar beings taking over your homeland. You learn to live in hiding, believing that as soon as you let your guard down you may pay the ultimate price.

This is not the premise of a zombie apocalypse movie. It is the story of human expansion into wild places, where the wildlife that coexists with us often lives in chronic fear of humans.

Disturbance by humans changes the behavior of animals near towns, along roads and in areas that we use for mining, energy development and recreation. Although conservationists are starting to consider how the presence of humans affects the behavior of some species, they rarely analyze how these changes in animals’ behavior affects entire ecosystems. In my research examining pumas, or mountain lions, in California, I’ve found that our presence alters how they hunt for deer, which can have a significant effect on the ecosystem overall.

Deer killed by puma in a residential area of the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Credit: Justine A. Smith)

Fear factor

Fear is a powerful force in ecosystems. For decades, ecologists have acknowledged that fear can dictate when, where, and what animals eat, what habitats they use and how they communicate with one another. These behavioral changes in animals are ecologically important because they can change interactions among species. Although many animals are known to respond fearfully to their predators, we are only beginning to understand how humans elicit the same responses in wildlife.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, I am studying how fear of humans in a top predator, the puma, resonates throughout the ecosystem. The Santa Cruz Mountains are isolated from other natural areas, bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west, the San Francisco Bay metropolitan area on the north, and a major highway on the east. Like many places across the country, this region is dotted with residential developments and land utilized for mining and logging. However, it also contains open space preserves and state and county parks that provide important high-quality habitat for wildlife.

This kind of multi-use and fragmented landscape is increasingly becoming the norm in places where humans encroach on wild lands. To keep developing areas as wild as possible, we need to conserve natural animal behaviors and relationships.

Scaredy cats

With my colleagues at the Santa Cruz Puma Project, I am studying how human disturbances indirectly affect the behavior of pumas, the last remaining large carnivores in our region that roam the ravines between ridges lined with houses. We have found that pumas attempt to avoid people, but their sensitivity to disturbance depends on what the cats are doing. Although pumas consistently travel and kill prey relatively close to human developments, they make their dens and communicate with each other through scent marking in areas far from zones that humans have altered.

In many types of ecosystems, researchers have observed that animals will avoid feeding opportunities when they fear a predator. To see whether the presence of humans was having this effect on pumas, I examined behavioral changes at kill sites in areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains with varying levels of human activity. To find these kill sites, our team tracked GPS-collared pumas using their locations and searched for prey remains. I then used data from the GPS collars to learn how behavior at these kill changed near human development.

Surprisingly, I found that pumas often kill deer near human residences. However, unlike in wild areas where pumas stay close to their kills for a few days while they feed, pumas in developed areas leave their kills and move away from humans to rest, returning to feed only after dark. This causes pumas to waste energy by spending more time on the move, while losing opportunities to feed on their kills. Moreover, pumas that hunt in the most disturbed areas kill 36 percent more deer than pumas in the most rural areas. We believe that pumas ranging near developed areas kill more deer because they cannot fully consume their prey while also avoiding interactions with humans.

Warning sign at Los Trancos Open Space Reserve, San Mateo County, California.
kmanohar/Flickr, CC BY

Our study provides evidence that the presence of humans not only changes the way top carnivores behave, but also indirectly impacts other species. Pumas that are afraid of humans but still hunt in residential areas alter their relationship with deer, their primary prey. Greater pressure on deer could possibly provide more food for scavengers or reduce deer browsing near developed areas.

Our work provides just one example of the cascading effects that human disturbance can cause in wild ecosystems. Human presence can fundamentally alter the ways in which species interact, which changes the function and composition of the animal community. By considering how humans impact the behavior of important species, we can develop conservation solutions that preserve entire functioning ecosystems.

The Conversation

Justine Smith, Ph.D. Candidate in Conservation Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Featured Photo Credit: Christopher Fust, Author provided. Pumas near San Jose, CA

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‘Kinect’ at the Zoo could let Orangutans Play Games with Visitors

Researchers are testing a new technology similar to Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox One that allows orangutans in the Melbourne Zoo to use their bodies to control challenging games and applications.

If the trial is successful, within a few years the orangutans could be playing computer games with zoo visitors.

Zoos around the world, including Melbourne, have for some years been using computer tablets to enrich activities for primates. But while Melbourne’s six orangutans clearly love playing with and watching the tablets, there are serious limitations. The animals tend to smash the devices if they hold them, which means a zookeeper has to hold onto the tablet from behind protective mesh.


Zoo Atlanta in Georgia installed a touch screen into a tree-like structure inside the enclosure. But Sally Sherwen, an animal welfare specialist at Zoos Victoria, wanted to go beyond that and give the orangutans the opportunity to engage with the technology the way they want to—make it a richer experience by allowing more full body movements and also to interact directly with visitors.

She says previous research at the zoo has shown the orangutans themselves are keen to engage. When given the opportunity to be behind a curtained off part of the enclosure or in clear view, the orangutans much preferred being in clear view.

“They enjoyed using the tablet, but we wanted to give them something more, something they can use when they choose to,” Sherwen says.


The goal was to ensure there was nothing the orangutans could break or use to hurt themselves.

“By having all the technology on the outside and using these emerging technologies that allow for touch detections on projected surfaces, we are able to circumvent the safety issue,” says Marcus Carter, a researcher at the University of Melbourne.

Such safety issues aren’t to be underestimated. Orangutans are three times stronger than humans while sharing 97 percent of our DNA. A key challenge has been projecting successfully through the three panels of bulletproof glass protecting the enclosure. But the team can now project a full body-sized screen that allows the orangutans to “bodily engage” with the projection, whether it be rolling, using it on their bodies, or bringing over physical objects like leaves and bits of tarpaulin.


The team has developed an initial shape-recognition game dubbed Zap that builds off a game the zoo keepers created in which the orangutans are trained to identify a red dot on a wall to secure a treat. But in the computer game, the shape will explode with light when both the orangutan and the human player touch the shapes at the same time. The idea is to encourage collaborative play.

“As interactive game designers we use what we call participatory design. We work with the people who use the products and they provide input and feedback for prototypes,” says PhD candidate Sarah Webber, who is working with Carter. “You can’t have those conversations with animals, so we have to find new ways to include them as participants in the design process.”

Malu uses his body, not just his hands, to interact with the interface. (Credit: Zoos Victoria)

The researchers are now working with the zookeepers to tap into the different personalities of the zoo’s orangutans. For example, females Gabby and Kiani appear to be fascinated with handbags and what people pull out of them, while male Santan is intrigued by men with ginger beards.

Malu, also a male, likes extracting nuts and bolts from places he shouldn’t. Indeed, Malu’s penchant for taking things apart–he managed to escape the enclosure for a short time last year–has made his keepers train him to hand over whatever bolts and nuts he extracts in return for a reward.

“These individual differences are things we can use as inspiration to design something that is complex and motivates them to solve puzzles,” Webber says. “We know apes can successfully use touch screens, but they are very task orientated, so we want to see if we can devise experiences that are inherently engaging to them.”


One application is being aimed especially at Kiani, who loves to look at pictures of herself. Dubbed “Orangstagram”, the app allows the orangutans to take pictures of themselves and display them. They would also be able to go through a picture library and choose what they want to look at.

Such an activity could prove to be much more than a game. It opens up the possibility of animal psychologists “reading” the emotional health of orangutans by analyzing what pictures they select.

“If we design an interface they understand, they could use it to communicate things about their welfare,” Carter says.

Such an interface could also eventually become a shared projection space extending inside and outside the enclosure, creating a host of potential new opportunities for interaction between the orangutans and zoo visitors. This could allow orangutans the opportunity to play collaboratively with visitors, who can remain safely outside the enclosure. It would completely change the way animals and visitors interact at the zoo.

Republished from as a derivative work under the Attribution 4.0 International license. Original article posted to Futurity by .

Featured Photo Credit: Kabir/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

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Polar Bears Prove that Bigger Brain Equals Smarter [Video]

Scientists have suspected that brain size is linked to intelligence, but there’s not been enough evidence to show that a bigger brain predicts cognitive ability.

To gather the evidence, researchers traveled to nine US zoos and presented 140 animals from 39 different mammalian carnivore species with a novel problem-solving task.

The study included polar bears, arctic foxes, tigers, river otters, wolves, spotted hyenas, and some rare, exotic species, such as binturongs, snow leopards, and wolverines.

Each animal was given 30 minutes to extract food from a metal box, closed with a bolt latch. The box was scaled to the animal’s size and baited with each study animal’s preferred food—red pandas received bamboo and snow leopards got steak.

“Does a larger brain imply greater intelligence?” asks George Gilchrist, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology, which helped fund the research. “This is a key question for those studying brain evolution.

“These researchers devised a clever puzzle that could be presented to multiple species—and discovered a strong correlation between relatively large brain size and problem-solving ability.”

Next, learn about the high success rate that bears had, and watch a great video of different animals taking the test…


Researchers Show How Songbird Singing is Similar to Human Vocalization

You might not expect that there is much in common between the way a songbird sings and how humans sing and vocalize, but according to new research from Emory University, a songbird’s vocal muscles work like those of human speakers and singers, a study of Bengalese finches shows.

Each of the birds’ vocal muscles can change its function to help produce different parameters of sounds, in a manner similar to that of a trained opera singer.

“Our research suggests that producing really complex song relies on the ability of the songbirds’ brains to direct complicated changes in combinations of muscles,” says Samuel Sober, a biologist at Emory University and lead author of the study in the Journal of Neuroscience. “In terms of vocal control, the bird brain appears as complicated and wonderful as the human brain.”

Pitch, for example, is important to songbird vocalization, but there is no single muscle devoted to controlling it. “They don’t just contract one muscle to change pitch,” Sober says. “They have to activate a lot of different muscles in concert, and these changes are different for different vocalizations. Depending on what syllable the bird is singing, a particular muscle might increase pitch or decrease pitch.”

Previous research has revealed some of the vocal mechanisms within the human “voice box,” or larynx. The larynx houses the vocal cords and an array of muscles that help control pitch, amplitude and timbre.

Although birds don’t have a larynx, we explore how their very interesting vocal organ works and it similarity to our larynx on the next page…


Mick Jagger’s Got Nothin’ on these Chameleons [Video]

Here’s a crazy chameleon fact: in order to get some satisfaction in their bellies – meaning insects for their lunch – they have the longest tongues compared to body length of any creature on earth. This most recent research from Christopher V. Anderson, a post-doctoral Research Associate at Brown University found that the smallest chameleons have the longest tongues, up to two and a half times their body length, in fact.  Although Mick Jagger is famous for his long tongue, he would have to concede defeat to the chameleons.

Sorry Mick.


Video credit: New York Times

See more videos of chameleons feeding on Dr. Christopher V. Anderson’s YouTube Channel

Featured Photo Credit: imke.stahlmann/flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

New Scientific Research Survey Explores the Benefits of Rudolph’s Red Nose.

One could say that scientists are always looking into the edgiest things that they can think of, and Dartmouth Nathaniel J. Dominy is no exception.  After completing an investigation into all of the available evidence, Dr. Dominy has come to a conclusion as to why Rudolph’s red nose is a benefit for Santa and his eight tiny reindeer:

A press release on EurekAlert explains it all:

By citing research by other scientists on the unique eyes and vision of Arctic reindeer, Dominy explains why Rudolph is able to lead Santa and his team of eight tiny reindeer through the thick Arctic fog.

Dominy points out that Arctic reindeer (scientific name Rangifer tarandus tarandus) can see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to humans and most mammals–a trait that comes especially handy in mid-winter when the sun is low on the horizon and the high scattered light from the atmosphere is mainly blueish and ultraviolet. In addition, the reflective tissue (tapetum lucidum) in reindeer eyes changes from a rich golden color during the summer months to a deep blue color during the winter months. This tissue (which causes eye shine at night) helps nocturnal animals see in the dark, and a blue one is expected to improve their ability to see blue light. Yet, fog extinguishes blue light more readily than red light, which may make it especially difficult for Santa’s reindeer to see blue effectively, never mind fly.

This is where Rudolph’s luminescent (glowing) nose comes into play, as it serves as an excellent fog light for navigating his fellow reindeer. Given that the redness of Rudolph’s nose is similar to red holly berries, Dominy was able to estimate the color of light emitted from Rudolph’s nose by measuring the color of holly berries. He found that Rudolph’s nose is probably the maximum level of redness that mammals are able to see, which may explain why Rudolph’s nose is effective as a fog light.

According to Dominy, Rudolph’s nose also poses a problem. Reindeer noses are extremely vascular, which causes them to lose body heat through their noses. A glowing nose could cause excessive heat loss for Rudolph, putting him at risk of hypothermia. “It is therefore imperative for children to provide high-calorie foods to help Rudolph replenish his energetic reserves on Christmas Eve,” says Dominy. As a result of the unique properties of Rudolph, it is no wonder that with a nose so bright, he is able to effectively guide Santa’s sleigh.

So there you have it, the definitive explanation as to how Rudolph’s red nose cannot justify name calling or barring from the usual reindeer games.


Source: Eurekalert: “The scientific benefits of Rudolph’s red nose

Featured Photo Credit: Photo by Eli Burakian, class of 2000, Dartmouth College, depicting a paper mache of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which once graced the Chicago lawn of his creator, Robert L. May, Dartmouth class of 1926.

GoCrow: Unprecedented Footage Recorded via ‘Crow Cams’ [Video]

A new study of  wild New Caledonian crows has used light-weight cameras mounted on their tails to capture live video of them creating hooked tools to extract insects from tree bark and leaf litter.  It’s the first time that their renowned tool-making behavior has been caught on camera.

New Scientist’s website published a very intriguing article that provides the details:

New Caledonian crows are the only non-human animals to make hooked tools in the wild. Why they do so is something of a mystery. “The answer to that lies most probably in the ecology of the place and the ecology of these birds,” says Christian Rutz at the University of St Andrews, UK.

Filming their natural behaviour may help us get to the bottom of it.

The film captures crows manufacturing tools in the wild, which they did from paperbark and a local plant, Acacia spirorbis. They first snapped a twig just above and below a branch, then stripped the bark and leaves from the longer, thinner branch and crafted the cut ends to make a hook.

Crows used the hooks to extract insect larvae, and on one occasion an adult insect, from wood. They were also spotted using hooked tools to forage in leaf litter, which hasn’t been seen before.

The cameras also captured plenty of foraging behaviour without tools, including one bird catching a frog and feeding portions of it to chicks.

The research team released this fascinating video from their research:

For additional details, see the excellent article on the New Scientist website.


Source: – “Crow cameras give a bird’s eye view of tool-making in the wild

Featured Image Credit: Jolyon Troscianko

What clues does your dog’s spit hold for human mental health?

Elinor Karlsson, University of Massachusetts Medical School

Dogs were the first animals people domesticated, long before the earliest human civilizations appeared. Today, tens of thousands of years later, dogs have an unusually close relationship with us. They share our homes and steal our hearts – and have even evolved to love us back. Sadly, they also suffer from many of the same difficult-to-treat psychiatric and neurological diseases we do.

Beskow, in fine spirits.
Elinor Karlsson, CC BY-ND

I learned this firsthand about six years ago, when my sister Adria adopted Beskow, a beautiful, boisterous, black and white mutt. Beskow became my constant companion on my morning runs along the Charles River. Her joy in running was obvious to everyone we passed, and she kept me going mile after mile.

When not running, though, Beskow suffered from constant anxiety that left her stressed and unhappy – on edge around other dogs and prone to aggressive behavior. Beskow had trouble even playing outdoors, since she was compelled to attend to every sound and movement. Working one-on-one with skilled behaviorists and trainers helped immensely, but poor Beskow still never seemed able to relax. Eventually, Adria combined the intensive training with medication, which finally seemed to give Beskow some relief.

Beskow’s personality – her intelligence, her focus and her anxiety – was shaped not only by her own life experiences, but by thousands of years of evolution. Have you ever known a dog who would retrieve the same ball over and over again, for hours on end? Or just wouldn’t stay out of the water? Or wasn’t interested in balls, or water, but just wanted to follow her nose? These dogs are the result of hundreds of generations of artificial selection by human beings. By favoring useful behaviors when breeding dogs, we made the genetic changes responsible more common in their gene pool.

When a particular genetic change rapidly rises in prevalence in a population, it leaves a “signature of selection” that we can detect by sequencing the DNA of many individuals from the population. Essentially, around a selected gene, we find a region of the genome where one particular pattern of DNA – the variant linked to the favored version of the gene – is far more common than any of the alternative patterns. The stronger the selection, the bigger this region, and the easier it is to detect this signature of selection.

In dogs, genes shaping behaviors purposely bred by humans are marked with large signatures of selection. It’s a bit like evolution is shining a spotlight on parts of the dog genome and saying, “Look here for interesting stuff!” To figure out exactly how a particular gene influences a dog’s behavior or health, though, we need lots more information.

To try to unravel these connections, my colleagues and I are launching a new citizen science research project we’re calling Darwin’s Dogs. Together with animal behavior experts, we’ve put together a series of short surveys about everything from diet (does your dog eat grass?) to behavior (is your dog a foot sitter?) to personality (is your dog aloof or friendly?).

Any dog can participate in Darwin’s Dogs, including purebred dogs, mixed breed dogs, and mutts of no particular breed – our study’s participants will be very genetically diverse. We’re combining new DNA sequencing technology, which can give us much more genetic information from each dog, with powerful new analysis methods that can control for diverse ancestry. By including all dogs, we hope to be able to do much larger studies, and home in quickly on the important genes and genetic variants.

A beagle considers making the saliva donation.
Stephen Schaffner, CC BY-ND

Once an owner has filled out the survey, there’s a second, crucial step. We send an easy-to-use kit to collect a small dog saliva sample we can use for DNA analysis. There’s no cost, and we’ll share any information we find.

Our plan is to combine the genetic data from many dogs and look for changes in DNA that correlate with particular behaviors. It won’t be easy to match up DNA with an obsession with tennis balls, for instance. Behavior is a complex trait that relies on many genes. Simple Mendelian traits, like Beskow’s black and white coat, are controlled by a single gene which determines the observable characteristic. This kind of inherited trait is comparatively easy to map. Complex traits, on the other hand, may be shaped by tens or even hundreds of different genetic changes, each of which on its own only slightly alters the individual carrying it.

Adding to the complexity, environment often plays a big role. For example, Beskow may not have been as anxious if she’d lived with Adria from puppyhood, even though her genetics would be unchanged.

Darwin’s Dogs team member Jesse McClure extracts DNA from a sample.
Elinor Karlsson, CC BY-ND

To succeed, we need a lot of dogs to sign up. Initially, we’re aiming to enroll 5,000 dogs. If successful, we’ll keep growing. With bigger sample sizes, we’ll be able to tackle even more complex biological puzzles.

This is a huge effort, but could offer huge rewards. By figuring out how a genetic change leads to a change in behavior, we can decipher neural pathways involved in psychiatric and neurological diseases shared between people and dogs. We already know these include not just anxiety, but also PTSD, OCD, autism spectrum disorders, phobias, narcolepsia, epilepsy, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Understanding the biology underlying a disease is the first step in developing more effective treatments – of both the canine and human variety. For example, genetic studies of narcolepsy in Doberman pinschers found the gene mutation causing the disease – but only in this one dog population. Researching the gene’s function, though, led to critical new insights into the molecular biology of sleep, and, eventually, to new treatment options for people suffering from this debilitating disease.

Darwin’s Dogs is investigating normal canine behaviors as well as diseases. We hypothesize that finding the small genetic changes that led to complex behaviors, like retrieving, or even personality characteristics, like playfulness, will help us figure out how brains work. We need this mechanistic understanding to design new, safe and more effective therapies for psychiatric diseases.

Beskow with one of her loving family members.
Adria Karlsson, CC BY-ND

And Beskow? Six years later, she is as wonderful as ever. While still anxious some of the time, the medication and training have paid off, and she enjoys her daily walks, training and playtime. She still gets very nervous around other dogs, but is a gentle, playful companion for my sister’s three young children.

We are now sequencing her genome. In the next few months, we should have our first glimpse into Beskow’s ancestry. We know she is a natural herder, so we’re curious to find out how much her genome matches up to herding breeds, and which genes are in that part of the genome.

Of course, we can’t figure out much from just one dog – if you are a dog owner, please enroll your dog today!

The Conversation

Elinor Karlsson, Assistant Professor of Bioinformatics and Integrative Biology, University of Massachusetts Medical School

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Featured Photo Credit: John Haslam via flickr. CC BY 2.0

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This Animal Redefines the Words ‘Extreme,’ ‘Survivor,’ and Possibly Even ‘Evolution’

There’s a microscopic animal which many people have never even heard of that holds the world record in being an extreme survivor. It can live through being deep frozen, down to −458 °F (−272.222 °C); being boiled, up to  300 °F (149 °C); pressures 6 times that found at the bottom of the deepest ocean; radiation levels that would almost immediately kill a human; dehydration to less than 3% water in their tiny bodies; and, most astoundingly, the complete vacuum of space.

This amazing animal is called the tardigrade, often referred to as the “water bear” because they kind of look like little bears due to the claws on the ends of their eight limbs. But if they have any DNA in common with actual bears, it’s because they somehow borrowed it.


Scientists sequenced their genome and were shocked to find the animals, known as water bears, get a huge chunk—about 17 percent—from foreign DNA.

Previously another microscopic animal called the rotifer was the record-holder for having the most foreign DNA, but it has about half as much as the tardigrade. For comparison, most animals have less than one percent of their genome from foreign DNA.

“We had no idea that an animal genome could be composed of so much foreign DNA,” says study co-author Bob Goldstein, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We knew many animals acquire foreign genes, but we had no idea that it happens to this degree.”

The work, publish in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, not only raises the question of whether there is a connection between foreign DNA and the ability to survive extreme environments, but further stretches conventional views of how DNA is inherited.

The study shows that tardigrades acquire about 6,000 foreign genes primarily from bacteria, but also from plants, fungi, and Archaea, through a process called horizontal gene transfer—the swapping of genetic material between species as opposed to inheriting DNA exclusively from mom and dad.


“Animals that can survive extreme stresses may be particularly prone to acquiring foreign genes—and bacterial genes might be better able to withstand stresses than animal ones,” says Thomas Boothby, a postdoctoral fellow in Goldstein’s lab and first author of the study. After all, bacteria have survived the Earth’s most extreme environments for billions of years.

The team speculates that the DNA is getting into the genome randomly but what is being kept is what allows tardigrades to survive the harshest of environments: Stick a tardigrade in an 80-celsius freezer for 10 years and it starts running around in 20 minutes after thawing.


When tardigrades are under conditions of extreme stress such as desiccation—or a state of extreme dryness—Boothby and Goldstein believe that the tardigrade’s DNA breaks into tiny pieces.

When the cell rehydrates, the cell’s membrane and nucleus, where the DNA resides, becomes temporarily leaky and DNA and other large molecules can pass through easily. Tardigrades not only can repair their own damaged DNA as the cell rehydrates but also stitch in the foreign DNA in the process, creating a mosaic of genes that come from different species.

“We think of the tree of life, with genetic material passing vertically from mom and dad,” says Boothby. “But with horizontal gene transfer becoming more widely accepted and more well known, at least in certain organisms, it is beginning to change the way we think about evolution and inheritance of genetic material and the stability of genomes.

“So instead of thinking of the tree of life, we can think about the web of life and genetic material crossing from branch to branch. So it’s exciting. We are beginning to adjust our understanding of how evolution works.”

Tardigrades appear to live everywhere in the world, continue on to the next page to watch an incredibly interesting video by the scientist who found that these tiny animals could survive the vacuum of space…


When Biologists Are Able to Resurrect Species, Should They Actually Do It?

Biologists at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego are on the verge of being able to bring extinct species back to life, or to rebuild the populations of almost-extinct species that are on the verge of disappearing. The question is, should they bring them back?

A really insightful article on WIRED’s website explores the ramifications of that dilemma. To resurrect or not to resurrect, that is the question… In the sad case of the Northern White Rhino, it may be that either choice is a bad one, even though it may be technically possible.

As the WIRED article explains:

At the Scripps Research Institute, regenerative medicine researcher Jeanne Loring has figured out how to make induced pluripotent stem cells, capable of transforming into any cell type in the body, out of rhino skin. She and her team are now working out how to turn them into rhino eggs and sperm. If successful, they should be able to create new rhinos via in vitro fertilization, saving the animal from extinction—or more likely, bringing it back from the dead.

The white rhino isn’t the only beast on the verge of resurrection. For species that are already wholly extinct, scientists are turning to massive caches of animal and plant cells stored in deep-freeze repositories like the Cryo Collection, buried in the bowels of the American Museum of Natural History. Others are using a method called anthropogenic hybridization—crossbreeding a dying species with a similar, living one so that some of its characteristics survive.

With these methods and others, biologists may soon be able to bring animals back from the dead. That’s a thrilling but distinctly unnatural approach to preserving nature. And some scientists and conservationists are asking if resurrection is really the right way to save the Earth’s threatened species.

The article goes on to explain that the Northern White Rhino is a dying species because it has been hunted to the brink of its now inevitable extinction due to the commercial demand for its horn. So, if Loring’s experiments eventually produce a new rhino, it couldn’t be released into the wild because poachers would likely kill it.

So where will they live? The article continues:

Zoos. Loring calls her work “Jurassic Park without the scary parts,” in part because her newly-birthed science experiments might only ever get to roam in a living museum. Some question whether preserving wildlife is valuable if it can’t live in the wild. “A tiger in a zoo isn’t really a tiger anymore because it’s not doing its thing,” [says] the environmental ethicist Holmes Rolston III.

An animal robbed of its natural home is hardly an ideal solution, Loring recognizes. “I don’t want to rescue an animal that’s going to exist only in a zoo,” she says. “But it’s probably better than not having it at all.”

But one wonders, is the potential resurrection of species just humanity’s way of trying to “play god?” After all, who determines which species get to come back and which don’t?

…the attempt to save the white rhino might have another driver: human self-interest. Fifty years ago, scientists successfully cloned carp, currently a vulnerable species. But using that technology to increase the fish’s numbers isn’t nearly as attractive as the redemption story of bringing back the white rhino from the brink of extinction. It’s estimated that human activity is causing Earth’s species to go extinct at 100 times their natural rate. But only those species that have earned favor among humans—or make us feel especially guilty—get a lifeline. “I’m not saving mosquitos,” says Loring. “Trust me.”

So should humanity save our chosen species out of guilt for causing their extinction?  It’s an open question, and one that is sure to be debated in years to come if Loring’s research pans out.

For more fascinating discussion of the moral dilemma of resurrecting species, see the excellent article on the WIRED website.

Source: – “Biologists Could Soon Resurrect Extinct Species. But Should They?” 


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