Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SciFri: Why we need to accept that extinction is forever

Recently, news broke that stunned the scientific community. Members of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia revealed that they had irrefutable proof of the existence of thylacines, an extinct marsupial wolf-like creature that was once native to most of Australasia. Thylacines went extinct in 1936 after what can only be described as a barbaric and hatred filled extermination process, with the last individual dying in captivity due to neglect. It’s safe to say that the images that the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia were not of the thylacine, but instead another marsupial called a pademelon. With this revelation, it’s time we gave up hope searching for thylacines.

As a conservationist, I’m a very optimistic person. Despite our work often being depressing, most other conservationists are convinced we can bring species back from the edge of extinction, this has been the case for species such as the Mauritius kestrel and the black-footed ferret. These programs require a large amount of funds and dedication, something that not everyone can afford or invest for them to fail. However, a number of species are currently staving off extinction thanks to captive breeding efforts and other conservation measures. Bringing a species back from extinction is currently the realms of science fiction despite our best efforts. Amphibians, my most favourite animals are in free-fall across the globe but I know there are a number of people out there doing all they can to ensure they don’t croak it.

There are current attempts to clone gastric brooding frogs and thylacines, using DNA taken from museum specimens. The issue is that most specimens are fixed in formalin and not ethanol and so the DNA has become highly degraded. There was a successful cloning of a Pyrenean ibex but it died shortly after bird due to a long defect. Clearly, de-extinction in this form is not sustainable and finding the genetic diversity to produce a viable population from cloned individuals is a little less than impossible. I feel we should move away from these attempts and focus on what we have, before it’s too late. Whilst it is a great dream, I can only see it shifting the public’s focus to no longer care about extinction if they think we can use some Jurassic Park magic in the lab.

You may be asking yourself why I went off on that tangent? Well, it’s about time we as a species took a long, hard look at ourselves and realised that the thylacine is gone. It’s not gone because of a volcanic eruption, or the spread of a disease among it’s population. It’s no longer with us because we hunted them down, shot them one-by-one and rounded them up due to a bounty being placed on their head. The Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia presented evidence of their existence, but it is very clear to most that the images aren’t of thylacines. By holding onto hope, we’re creating a delusion where anything that briefly fits the image of a thylacine must be a thylacine. They haven’t been seen in the wild for a century and if they were out there, it’s clear we would have seen one by now. There were around 5,000 present on Tasmania at the time of European settlement and we shot them all, not for sport but because we saw them as vermin. In my mind, this is just one of many acts which highlights how inhumane humans really are when it comes to the natural world.

Any sightings of a thylacine from modern times are likely the result of a hoax or delusion. It’s a hard pill to swallow but it’s time to stop searching for them (and other extinct species). Let’s refocus our efforts on trying to save the species we know are declining and endangered before we lose them too. Searching for thylacines now is no different to searching for bigfoot, they’re just a figment of our imagination. Whilst it’s true that some species that were thought to be extinct do turn up after long periods of time, none of them rival the thylacine in terms of size or the modification of it’s original habitat. If shooting them all didn’t finish them off, then that modification certainly did. Extinction is forever, it’s about time we started acting so.

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