Project plans to bring back the extinct thylacine
Restoring the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger – an extinct marsupial carnivore – could aid rewilding, but some Australian wildlife experts worry it could divert attention and resources from other conservation efforts.
Plans to bring back the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger – the dog-like marsupial predator that went extinct some time during the 20th century – through a technique called gene editing have been met with a mixed reception.
A biotech company called Colossal Biosciences, which is already working on a project to recreate the woolly mammoth, has announced it is in the early stages of engineering the thylacine using genetic material from dead animals and living relatives.
“Once we have the engineered cells, we use stem cell technologies and cloning techniques to turn those cells back into a living animal,” says Dr Andrew Pask, head of the Thylacine Integrated Genomic Restoration Research Lab (TIGRR), Colossal’s main project partner.
TIGRR’s website shows how scientists hope to use genetic material from the thylacine’s closest-living relatives – the dunnart and the numbat – to engineer a thylacine-like embryo that gestates inside the womb of a Tasmanian devil. Offspring would be isolated at birth and hand-reared.
Assuming the ‘de-extinction’ can be achieved, Colossal says returning thylacines to the wild could have huge benefits for Australian wildlife.
“Without an apex predator, ecosystems plunge into a series of cascading trophic downgrading effects,” it says. These include the spread of diseases, more wildfires, proliferating invasive species and loss of carbon storage.
But conservationists contacted by BBC Wildlife challenged some of Colossal’s assumptions.
Tasmanian wildlife conservation consultant Nick Mooney describes the plan as “wishful thinking” and says – across mainland Australia at least – the thylacine isn’t needed.
“The dingo has been found across mainland Australia for thousands of years and because it can operate in a pack, it is actually a higher-order predator than the thylacine,” he says.
Jack Ashby, Australian mammal expert at the University of Cambridge, understands the motivation of wanting to “right the wrong” of the thylacine’s extinction, but says projects like this potentially undermine current conservation efforts to save rare species, not just because valuable resources are being diverted from where they can be most effectively used.
“Thylacines are gone due to overhunting,” Ashby says. “If we keep saying it can be resurrected, what would that do to our ability to argue against over-hunting elsewhere?”
Main image: A biotech company called Colossal Biosciences plans to bring back the extinct thylacine through gene editing. © Colossal Biosciences