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Endangered Or Extinct Animals Won’t Be Saved By Cloning

Cloning might seem like a panacea solution. Take one animal and make millions! But it's not that simple

smithsonian.com

Since cloning won’t work, maybe we can dress up cats and just pretend. Image: fox_kiyo

There are over 1,000 endangered animal species in South America. Saving everything from the jaguar to the manatee isn’t easy. In fact, most endangered species will probably lose their battle for home and food to humans. Now, some scientist are trying to clone them to ease the pressure.

New Scientist writes:

“While cloning is a tool of last resort, it may prove valuable for some species,” says Ian Harrison of the Biodiversity Assessment Unit at Conservation International in Arlington, Virginia. “Experimenting with it now, using species that are not at immediate risk of extinction, is important.”

Now, cloning might seem like a panacea solution. Take one animal and make millions! But it’s not that simple. All About Wildlife explains that while cloning might be promising, it’s not a solution:

But cloning will never be a solution to the problem of extinction. For one thing, the process, with all the technology and all the medical expertise and intervention it requires, will probably always be too expensive to be practical for producing even modest numbers of large animals. For another, successful populations of wild animals need a certain amount of genetic diversity in order to prevent an epidemic or other environmental stressor from wiping all of them out.

If an entire breeding population of endangered or extinct species were scientifically created out of genetic material from just a few individuals—for example, there just aren’t that many frozen mammoth carcasses around—then, after a few generations, each individual would end up as a virtual genetic photocopy of every other individual. And, when one animal got sick, either from germs or from some other factor, most of the others would probably get just as sick as well.

And cloning extinct animals is probably also out of the question. It boils down tho the relationship between mammals and the myriad microbes that live on their skin and in their digestive system. The Last Word on Nothing puts it this way (back when people were talking about cloning the mammoth):

Animals and their microbiota are so tightly linked that some scientists think of them collectively as a kind of superorganism. Each species has its own suite of flora species that have adapted to it. When the mammoth went extinct, so, presumably, did all its little bugs. A cloned mammoth born vaginally from an elephant would likely end up with elephant microflora. One delivered by cesarean might have no bugs at all. What do we make of a mammoth superorganism if only one out 100 of its genes are authentic to the ecosystem that roamed the earth inside a hairy proboscidean skin 13,000 years ago?

Endangered animals have been cloned in the past, but they didn’t exactly propagate their species. New Scientist says:

Rare animals have been cloned before, including the ox-like gaur, a wild sheep called a mouflon, a wild cow called the banteng, and even an extinct mountain goat – the Pyrenean ibex – that died at birth. Since then, more versatile cloning techniques have been developed, increasing the chances of success.

So while cloning might be a patch solution, it won’t fix anything. And it certainly won’t bring mammoths back from the dead.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Which Dinosaur Would You Clone?
Russian Mammoth Discovery May Lead to Furry Clones

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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