Jurassic Park taught us all that if you have the will, the determination, 65 million year old DNA, and fictional science on your side, you can do anything. In the real world, science has a few more limitations, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to bring animals back from the dead (or, in some cases, the brink of death). They’ve been working on it for years, in fact, and numerous species are the focus of these efforts.
10. Gastric-Brooding Frogs
Is anything more wholesome than a mother caring for its babies in the wild? Motherhood is one of those universal things that crosses the species’ boundary. Of course, some moms are more creepy than others. Which brings us to the gastric-brooding frog. Discovered in the 1970s, once this species’ eggs are fertilized, the mother swallows them and uses its own stomach as a womb to bring them to term. The eggs hatch and even live as tadpoles inside their mother. Then, when they develop their little arms and legs, mom barfs them into the world in a projectile vomit birthing ceremony fit for any future horror movie that wants to use that as an idea.
In 2013, after the species had been extinct for nearly 30 years thanks to a fungus that destroyed them, scientists in Australia managed to bring the gastric-brooding frog back to life. Which is to say they created a living embryo from DNA that they had available. But it was more of a proof of concept experiment than a true resurrection. But the fact it worked was good, and scientists are still aiming towards returning the species to life.
Scientists want to use somatic cell nuclear transfer to put DNA from the extinct animals into an egg from a living frog and give the species a chance at a comeback.
When the 20th century began, there were 500,000 rhinos in the wild. Today there are about 27,000. Javan, Black and Sumatran rhinos are critically endangered while the Northern White Rhino is functionally extinct, all as a result of human poaching. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are only two living Northern White Rhinos in the world, a mother and daughter pair, which means when they die there will be no others if things progress naturally. But the extinction of the species wasn’t natural, so saving them with science is a worthy endeavor. Scientists have already created 12 viable living embryos that can be used to continue the species in the future.
Eggs have been harvested from both females, and sperm was used from males that are now deceased. Neither female could carry a baby, however, so a surrogate mother of a close cousin species will need to be used.
The efforts to resurrect the species have been taken up by teams around the world from Germany to Kenya. The delicate process takes time and will definitely not be easy. The embryos still need to be implanted and taken to term, and then the baby rhinos need to prove they can survive. It’s a long road, but the fact there’s still hope is something to celebrate.
8. Tasmanian Tigers
The thylacine, also known as a Tasmanian Tiger, was not actually a cat but a carnivorous marsupial. The species was last seen in the wild sometime in the 1930s and by 1936, the species was considered extinct when the final specimen in a zoo passed away. Officials in Tasmania had a bounty on the animals and they were hunted to extinction.
Fast forward over 100 years and in 2022 scientists have made a breakthrough in the potential for bringing Tasmanian tigers back from the dead. The genome of the numbat was recently unlocked. Numbats are endangered marsupials that may share about 95% of their genetics with the extinct thylacine. Understanding one may provide enough information to help resurrect the other.
Amazingly, unlocking the genome of the numbat was a remarkably simple and relatively cheap process thanks to advances in technology. It cost $2.9 billion to unlock the human genome back in 2009. It cost $1,000 to do the same for the numbat.
7. Tequila Fish
Not many people have heard of the tiny, innocuous tequila fish. The tiny little things only lived in one river in the entire world, near the Tequila volcano in Mexico. In 2003, they went extinct, and very few people noticed. But that doesn’t mean no one did.
Tequila fish, at only two inches long and living only in this one river, still had value to the world. They ate disease-spreading mosquitoes and served as a food source for birds and other fish. It was the whole circle of life thing, and they were as vital as all the other creatures. Researchers who realized the fish were going extinct began preparations for saving the species even before they died off.
In 1998, five breeding pairs of fish from a zoo in England were brought back to Mexico. A program to save the species began at a university there and by 2012, they were ready to transfer some of their little charges to a pond on the school grounds. They placed 80 fish in the pond where they would have to hunt and also be hunted. If they survived, it was believed the fish could be reintroduced to the wild. By 2016, there were 10,000 tequila fish in the pond.
After teaching the locals about conservation and the importance of protecting the fish and keeping the river clear, 1,500 were released in 2017. Their numbers grew and now their original river home has a stable population once again.
The last known aurochs in Europe died in 1627. These ancient cousins to the modern cow were big, with bulls weighing as much as 1,000 kilograms, or 2,200 pounds. There have been several attempts over the years, as far back as 1920, to reintroduce the species, not necessarily through any clever genetic manipulation or cloning, but by back-breeding the species into existence.
Basically, the aurochs is an old cousin of modern cattle. So the plan is to selectively breed current cattle species with the wanted characteristics of an aurochs. Through generations of back-breeding, these desired characteristics can be isolated and brought forward until a modern equivalent of the aurochs will exist once again. It’s not all that different from how any animal breeder will selectively bred animals like cats or dogs to effectively create a new breed. Cockapoos didn’t come from nowhere, after all.
The species once dominated Europe and there were herds in the millions. Larger than modern cows and also leaner and able to produce a lot of milk. The current plans, things like Project Tauros, aim to have a nearly identical modern version of the aurochs grazing in fields within 20 years.
5. Passenger Pigeons
In the 1800s in the United States and Canada, there were times when the sun was blocked from the sky as flocks of passenger pigeons numbering in the tens of millions took to the skies. It’s believed their population stretched into the billions. There were so many pigeons they knocked down trees with the sheer weight of them trying to roost. And then they vanished. The last known passenger pigeon died in 1914.
The pigeons were easy targets for hunters. The advent of the telegraph and railroads spelled doom for the birds, as hunters could easily track flocks. Hunting them was an industry, and people would literally fill barrels with the animals and ship them off. This, plus habitat loss, spelled the end of them.
A group called Revive and Restore is looking to tweak the genetics of the still living band-tailed pigeon to reproduce passenger pigeons. Once they’ve essentially rewritten the band-tailed pigeon’s genetics, which are already quite close to their extinct cousins’, passenger pigeons could potentially thrive once again.
4. Caspian Tigers
You may not have heard of a Caspian tiger before. They lived in parts of Turkey, Iran and Central Asia. Sightings became few and far between over the last century and they’ve been extinct since the 1960s. There is a curious plan to reintroduce the tigers in a way that is far afield from the genetic wizardry being used to revive other species like the gastric-brooding frogs and passenger pigeons.
A plan to reintroduce the tiger species essentially sidesteps the issue of reproducing a Caspian tiger by noting that the Siberian tiger, a close cousin of the Caspian, is almost exactly the same. It’s also able to adapt to the same arid climate that the Caspian tiger roamed. Therefore, it’s been proposed, why not just put Siberian tigers in the Caspian territory and call it a Caspian tiger?
The plan would involve first establishing a viable population of hoofed animals in the region that have also vanished, a process that could take years. But once that’s been done, a new tiger population could be supported.
Silly though it may sound, it’s believed 40 tigers could become 100 in 50 years. And since there are only 500 Siberian tigers left in the world, that represents a giant boost to the species. Even if we have to pretend they’re Caspian tigers now.
3. The Moa Bird
There were several species of moa birds in New Zealand that are now extinct. It;’s believed they died out not long after humans came to the island, between 600 and 700 years ago.Like their modern cousins the emu and the ostrich, they were large flightless birds, and they grew to be about 12 feet tall.
In 2018, the genome of the little bush moa, a turkey-sized cousin of the larger moa, was nearly unlocked using DNA from a museum sample. The gaps in the genetic information will be substituted with those of the modern emu in the hopes that everything can be sorted and, potentially, the moa can be brought back from extinction. The process is slow going because filling in those genetic gaps takes a lot of fine tuning, but if it works, the birds may one day return.
2. The Quagga
A relative of the zebra, the quagga was the first extinct species to have its DNA sequenced. It was hunted to extinction in 1878. Members of the Quagga Project have worked for years to effectively bring the animal back to life.
Like the aurochs, the quagga was reintroduced through a back-breeding process, where zebras were bred to bring forth desired characteristics of the extinct subspecies. Unlike the aurochs, which is still a project in motion, the Quagga Project worked. There have been over 100 animals bred, but only six of them demonstrate the traits that make them stand out as quaggas. The plan is to continue to breed them until there is a herd of 50 and then let them live together and do what animals naturally do.
No other animal gets as much de-extinction press as the wooly mammoth. It’s the poster child for an animal that science is bringing back any day now. And that’s not to say people aren’t working on reintroducing them, but it’s also a story that gets resurrected far more than the mammoths themselves do.
The idea of cloning a mammoth was floated in 1996. In 1999, scientists found the frozen remains of a mammoth they hoped to get DNA from. It was brought up in 2003. And also 2005. Then in 2008, the mammoth genome was fully sequenced. Naturally, this led to more tales of their resurrection in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Mammoth DNA was put into elephant cells in 2015. They were on the “verge of resurrection” in 2017 and again in 2019. In 2021, a bold new company was ready to bring back the mammoth, and that’s where we’ve left off. Twenty-five years of mammoths being right around the corner.
The potential is clearly there and if ever an extinct species was going to make a comeback, it’d be the mammoth, since so many people are clearly invested in it. Plus this latest round in 2021 came with $15 million in funding. Hopefully, results aren’t another 25 years away.