Sabertooth reconstruction or de-extinction?
These days we are hearing a lot about “de-extinction”, that is, the scientific process of bringing extinct species back via cloning their DNA. Sabertooths are among the species mentioned, because the last sabertooth species to disappear did it as recently as 10,000 years ago and their fossils do preserve some DNA. Does that mean we are going to see a real living sabertooth anytime soon? I very much doubt it, and given the details of the methodology, even if we ever see a “resurrected” sabertooth there will always be a lot of doubts about how much it resembles the REAL thing.
I find these possibilities really intriguing, but I do not for a moment think that they turn extinction into a reversible process, and while I am not “offended” by the concept of “playing God” my impression is that we should not overestimate our actual potential for “bringing back the dead”.
My humble job is to research the anatomy of fossil animals and their living relatives in order to create reasonable approximations of the appearance and action of bygone species. But whenever I see a living big cat in the wild I get a very strong reminder of how much more than just osteology is needed to make a living animal. One cannot overstate how final extinction is. If we lose the wild lions and tigers we will never fully know what it is that we lost, because even if we reintroduce captive born specimens to the wild in some future time, there are subtleties in the interaction of a species with its environment that will be lost forever. But if all that is left of a species is the more or less incomplete DNA of a dead individual… well, the prospect is not especially bright.
As exciting as the possibility of seeing “what happens” after such experiments may be, I have two things clear in my mind: one of them is that whatever comes out of the laboratory, it will only share a small fraction of its essence with the real thing that was lost; and the second thing (CAUTION, here I indulge in some poetry) is that if I were a sabertooth cat (meaning a sentient individual of one of the most sophisticated species ever to evolve) I would like to see the light of day in the wilds of the Pleistocene, to face my fate as a predator and to raise a new generation of my kind, but I would not at all love to be born as a result of an awkward experiment by some overfunded scientists with a misguided sense of curiosity. It is easy to forget that each animal (including ourselves) has only one life to live, and from that point of view, de-extinction for me has something in common with some of the worse aspects of animal experimentation.
Let us do what we can to prevent the extinction of living species, and about those that are gone, I am content to study what remains of them. I am happy that pencils and graphic tablets remain my harmless tools for “resurrection”.
Thanks for reading!