On De-extincting the Tasmanian Tiger

The Tasmanian tiger (or Thylacine) was a carnivorous marsupial located near the top of Australia’s food chain. Halfway between a tiger and a coyote, its dog-like appearance is used as an example of convergent evolution. It looks similar to a dog, but its genetic lineage is completely different.

The thylacine’s story is not a happy one. Although they lived alongside Aboriginal peoples for millennia and were depicted frequently in their rock art, white settlers hunted them to extinction in the wild by the 1920s. They accused the thylacine of killing sheep, though there is some doubt about whether thylacines were capable of taking down animals of that size. The last Tasmanian tiger died in a Hobart zoo in 1936 only two months after the species gained full protection from the Australian government. (There is some poignant footage of the animal that gives you a sense of what was lost.)

An ambitious biotech company from Texas now proposes to use genetic editing to bring the thylacine back. (The same organization also has plans for the woolly mammoth).

Adam Edmonds via Flickr

Although I am open to some uses of biotech in conservation, I have doubts about de-extinction. One of my biggest is that the animal scientists create could never actually be a thylacine. It would be a blend of an existing marsupial with some added thylacine DNA. Another concern is that there seem to be many other conservation problems that need fixing before engaging in such a ’boutique’ activity.

I got the chance to talk about some of the issues on Ohio public radio last week. You can listen through the link below. It’s a break from reading in favor of an audio experience.

(P.S. I’m only the first 16 minutes of a program that went next to NASA’s moon rocket. Don’t be confused by the lead on the link below. Enjoy!)

Should We De-extinct the Thylacine?

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