De-extinction is about as sensible as de-death

15 03 2013

Published simultaneously in The Conversation.

On Friday, March 15 in Washington DC, National Geographic and TEDx are hosting a day-long conference on species-revival science and ethics. In other words, they will be debating whether we can, and should, attempt to bring extinct animals back to life – a concept some call “de-extinction”.

The debate has an interesting line-up of ecologists, geneticists, palaeontologists (including Australia’s own Mike Archer), developmental biologists, journalists, lawyers, ethicists and even artists. I have no doubt it will be very entertaining.

But let’s not mistake entertainment for reality. It disappoints me, a conservation scientist, that this tired fantasy still manages to generate serious interest. I have little doubt what the ecologists at the debate will conclude.

Once again, it’s important to discuss the principal flaws in such proposals.

Put aside for the moment the astounding inefficiency, the lack of success to date and the welfare issues of bringing something into existence only to suffer a short and likely painful life. The principal reason we should not even consider the technology from a conservation perspective is that it does not address the real problem – mainly, the reason for extinction in the first place.

Even if we could solve all the other problems, if there is no place to put these new individuals, the effort and money expended is a complete waste. Habitat loss is the principal driver of species extinction and endangerment. If we don’t stop and reverse this now, all other avenues are effectively closed. Cloning will not create new forests or coral reefs, for example. Read the rest of this entry »

Ghosts of bottlenecks past

25 05 2012

© D. Bathory

I’ve just spent the last week at beautiful Linnaeus Estate on the northern NSW coast for my third Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) (see previous post about my last ACEAS workshop).

This workshop is a little different to my last one, and I’m merely a participant (not the organiser) this time. Alan Cooper and members of his Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (Jeremy Austin, Vicki Thomson & Julien Soubrier) combined forces this week with Craig Mortiz, Margaret Byrne, Steve Donnellan, Tania Laity, Leo Joseph, Xander Xue and Gabriele Cybis. Our task was to examine the mounting evidence that many Australian species appear to show a rather shallow genetic pool from a (or several) major past bottlenecks.

What’s a ‘bottleneck’? In reference to the form after which it was named, a genetic bottleneck is the genetic diversity aftermath after a population declines to a small size and then later expands. The history of this reduction and subsequent expansion is written in the DNA, because inevitably gene ‘types’ are lost as most individuals shuffle off this mortal coil. In a way, it’s like losing a large population of people who all speak different languages – inevitably, you’d lose entire languages and the recovering population would grow out of a reduced ‘pool’ of languages, resulting in fewer overall surviving languages.

Our workshop focus started, as many scientific endeavours do, rather serendipitously. Several years ago, Jeremy Austin noticed that devils who had died out on the mainland several thousand years ago had a very low genetic diversity, as do modern-day devils surviving in Tasmania. He thought it was odd because they should have had more on the mainland given that was their principal distribution prior to Europeans arriving. He mentioned this in passing to Steve Donnellan one day and Steve announced that he had seem the same pattern in echidnas. Now, echidnas cover most of Australia’s surface, so that was equally odd. Then they decided to look at another widespread species – tiger snakes, emus, etc. – and found in many of them, the same patterns were there. Read the rest of this entry »

Different is better

6 03 2012

I found a nice complement to my More is Better post from January where I reported the results of a new meta-analysis demonstrating how higher species evenness and diversity engendered greater forest productivity – great empirical evidence for the so-called diversity-productivity relationship.

The latest paper adding convincing evidence regarding the important role of species diversity in maintaining ecosystem function comes from Marc Cadotte and colleagues published online early in Ecology. The paper, Phylogenetic diversity promotes ecosystem stability, looks at the problem from a slightly different angle.

If you recall from Zhang and colleagues, forest plots composed of many different species were more productive than single-species stands, and more ‘even’ (i.e., a metric which includes relative abundance of each species in system) stands were more productive, and better at explaining the variance in productivity than species richness alone.

Of course, species richness is considered only a blunt instrument to measure ‘biodiversity’, with evenness providing only a slight improvement. Ideally, we should be talking about genetic diversity considering this is the fundamental unit on which most of evolutionary processes operate (i.e., genes and gene complexes).

So Cadotte and colleagues measured genetic diversity within experimental plots of grassland savanna species established in Minnesota, USA (i.e., consisting of C3 grasses, C4 grasses, legumes, non-legume herbaceous forbs and two woody species) and compared this to ecosystem ‘stability’ (i.e., above-ground biomass divided by inter-annual standard deviation). They measured genetic diversity using four different metrics:

  1. the sum of the phylogenetic branch lengths represented by a set of co-occurring species
  2. the mean nearest taxon distance = the average of the shortest phylogenetic distance for each species to its closest relative
  3. the mean pairwise distance = the average of all phylogenetic distances connecting species in the sample; and
  4. an entropic measure based on the relative distribution of evolutionary distinctiveness, measured as the amount of a species’ evolutionary history that is not shared with other species Read the rest of this entry »

Classics: Effective population size ratio

27 04 2011

Here’s another concise Conservation Classic highlighted in our upcoming book chapter (see previous entries on this book). Today’s entry comes from a colleague of mine, Dick Frankham, who has literally written the book on conservation genetics. I’ve published with Dick a few times – absolutely lovely chap who really knows his field more than almost any other. It is a great pleasure to include one of his seminal works as a Conservation Classic.

This entry is highly related to our work on minimum viable population size, and the controversial SAFE index (more on that later).

Although it had long been recognized that inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity were accentuated in small, isolated populations (Charlesworth & Charlesworth, 1987), genetic hazards were generally considered to be of less consequence to extinction risk than demographic and environmental stochasticity. Frankham (1995) helped overturn this viewpoint, using a meta-analysis to draw together comprehensive evidence on the ratio of genetically effective to actual population size (Ne:N). Read the rest of this entry »

Classics: demography versus genetics

16 03 2011

Here’s another short, but sweet Conservation Classic highlighted in our upcoming book chapter (see previous entries on this book). Today’s entry comes from long-time quantitative ecology guru, Russ Lande, who is now based at the Silwood Park Campus (Imperial College London).


In an influential review, Lande (1988) argued that

“…demography may usually be of more immediate importance than population genetics in determining the minimum viable size of wild populations”.

It was a well-reasoned case, and was widely interpreted to mean that demographic and ecological threats would provide the ‘killer blow’ to threatened species before genetic factors such as inbreeding and fitness effects of loss of genetic diversity had time to exert a major influence on small population dynamics.

Read the rest of this entry »