#29: Let Elephants and Lions Roam the Great Plains

We are currently in the midst of earth's "sixth great extinction." For the past 10,000 years, existing species have been dying out faster than new species have been evolving, say scientists. Big Think expert and famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has estimated the annual species extinction rate to be around 30,000, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature calculated that the rate of extinction is 100-1,000 times greater than it was before man evolved. And with the threat of further climate change and man's exponential population growth, things are only getting worse. 

Conservationist and Cornell visiting fellow Josh Donlan tells Big Think that to mitigate this extinction, we should not just be trying to slow the rate of biodiversity loss—we should actively be working to reverse it. We must be "pro-active," he says, insisting on "countering the default scenario of more homogeneous landscapes." And the answer, he says, is to reintroduce big game animals like elephants and lions into middle America. "Big animals tend to be very important for generating biodiversity in the long haul," says Donlan.

Most conservationists set their benchmark for conservation of North America at 1492, the year Columbus landed in the New World, but Donlan argues we should push the clock back even farther, when these large animals roamed the great plains. Historical narratives paint the Europeans' arrival as having devastated a pristine Americans, but man had been responsible for environment change for millenia. Humans arrived in North America around 13,000 years ago, and their arrival heralded the extinction of dozens of species of fauna, especially large animals. Donlan says North America lost around 65 species over 100 lbs. around this time. 

some of the species are still around: african lion is almost genetically identical to one in North America, same with horses and elephants. we had our own cheetah in north america as well.

Repopulating North America's extinct big animals might be possible (even without cloning wooly mammoths from DNA in their fossils, as some have proposed) because many of the species that died out in North America have very similar relatives elsewhere in the world, says Donlan: the African lion is almost genetically identical to one that lived in North America; the Asian or African elephant could serve as a proxy for the mammoths that once roamed the Great Plains; and we even once had cheetahs roaming our continent. Re-wilding North America would not only help restore biodiversity here, it would repopulate big species like the African elephant, which are in danger of extinction.

Donlan imagines creating a giant ecological park in economically depressed parts of the MidWest. "As in Africa and regions surrounding some North American national parks, nearby towns would benefit economically from land management and tourism-related jobs," he says. 


The most recent (and most famous) mass extinction occurred 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period, wiping out the dinosaurs as well as 17% of all families of living thing

s. But this is not even close to the most devastating of the earth's mass extinctions: about 250 million years ago life was almost snuffed off the planet, eliminating 83% of earth's genera (one step above species). 

The current mass extinction is different than those before it because humans are the ones to blame, not nature. The IUCN has formally recognized 869 species that have gone extinct since 1500, but since scientist have only cataloged 2 million out of an estimated 5-30 million species, this is considered to be only 3% of the actual number of extinctions.

We could potentially work to reverse the damage by re-introducing these large animals to the Great Plains and the American southwest, where the once roamed. Not only could it save some endangered African and Asian species and restore biodiversity to North America, it might prove an economic stimulus to poor areas in the Midwest. 

Why We Should Reject This

Remember the film "Jurassic Park?" A group of conservation biologists from Cornell and Princeton say Donlan's Pleistocene re-wilding plan is "only a slightly less sensational proposal." Led by Dr. Dustin Rubenstein, the researchers published their own study in the journal Biological Conservation assessing Donlan's proposal: "It is a little like proposing that two wrongs somehow will make a right: both the modern-day proxy species are 'wrong' (i.e., different genetically from the species that occurred in North America during the Pleistocene), and the ecosystems into which they are to be reintroduced are 'wrong' (i.e., different in composition from the Pleistocene ecosystems, as well as from those in which the modern-day proxy species evolved). Pleistocene re-wilding of North America will not restore evolutionary potential of North America’s extinct megafauna because the species in question are evolutionarily distinct, nor will it restore ecological potential of North America’s modern ecosystems because they have continued to evolve over the past 13,000 years." And this plan is not only a waste of resources, there is also a potential for damage to the extant North American ecosphere: "Adding these exotic species to current ecological communities could potentially devastate populations of indigenous, native animals and plants," the scientists say. 

The amount of resources it would take to carry out Donlan's plan would be massive and best spent elsewhere, they conclude. "If financial and physical resources were available on this scale, they would be better spent on developing and field-testing new ways to manage and conserve indigenous populations of African, Asian, and North American wildlife in their historically-populated native habitats, on conducting ecological, behavioral, and demographic studies of these organisms in the environments in which they evolved, and on educating the public on each continent about the wonders of their own dwindling flora and fauna."

More Resources

— Fascinating Discovery Channel infographic about previous mass extinctions

Article about the Sixth Extinction by Niles Eldredge, the Curator-in-Chief of the permanent exhibition “Hall of Biodiversity” at the American Museum of Natural History

—"Pleistocene Rewilding" (2005) by Josh Donlan, published in The American Naturalist [PDF]

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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