What extinct species would you bring back if you could?
This intriguing question engaged nearly 200 powerful minds at the Great Extinction Debate, an evening of lightness and laughter held on 25 October to celebrate Wildlife Australia’s 50th birthday.
Compered by Wildlife Australia co-editor Tim Low, four panellists made compelling arguments for each of their chosen species. The species had to have occurred in Australia, of course, and Tim had nixed dinosaurs and thylacines. Although extinction is a very serious subject, the point of the evening was fun.
The panellists responded to the challenge with panache and creativity. Professor Roger Kitching chose Anomalcaris, a marine invertebrate that was the first large predator known on Earth. It must have been a fascinating evolutionary driver and is also available online as a plush toy. Dr Jonathan Cramb spoke on behalf of the giant rat kangaroo, Propleopus, which was a carnivore. Humans are implicated in so many marsupial extinctions. Perhaps the return of this species could level the field and give marsupials a bit of bite-back. Concerned about the deleterious effect of drop bears on unsuspecting visitors to Australia, Professor Mike Archer chose a crocodile, Trilophosuchus rackhami, which may have climbed trees and could certainly clean up the drop bear situation. Dr Glen Ingram pleaded for the amazing, aquatic southern gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus silus), last seen in 1981, with which he had an all-too-short personal research association.
Although the species are all extinct, some for thousands or millions of years, the arguments were fresh, thoughtful, well-informed, spirited, and sometimes nonsensical. Really, you couldn’t go wrong with returning any of them, as the panellists all agreed. However, after a lively Q&A from the audience, the species were put to the vote and the popular choice was – the gastric brooding frog, if it could be made resistant to the devastating chytrid fungus.
‘It could be done!’ claimed Mike Archer, who had earlier given an enthralling talk on the Lazarus Project and its experiments on somatic cell nuclear transfer to clone extinct species.
Dr Carol Booth, who completes the Wildlife Australia editing team, reminded us that, in its 50 years, Wildlife Australia has occasionally skated near the edge of extinction but has been resilient enough to survive thanks to its superb quality and intensely loyal supporters. However, we must be alert to threats to its habitat. We want it still to be with us in another 50 years.
As Tim Low, MC for the night, said following the success of this rare and unusual (but not extinct) event: ‘These are not good times for the conservation movement, but the evening showed that conservation culture is very strong and lively, and by no means fading away as some might hope.’
Special thanks to talented violinists, Astar and Rawhinia Castle, for their welcoming and beautiful music that greeted the audience as they arrived.
Mike Archer, a professor at the University of New South Wales, is one of Australia’s leading palaeontologists and best-known biologists. His previous appointments include Director of the Australian Museum and Dean of Science at the University of New South Wales. Mike is obsessed with returning the thylacine to life via cloning, and more recently his team made progress towards reviving the extinct gastric-brooding frog.
Dr Glen Ingram is a past president of Wildlife Queensland and columnist for Wildlife Australia magazine. He was Senior Curator of Vertebrates at the Queensland Museum and currently works within the court system where he usually contributes towards the adjustment of development plans. In all, Glen feels he has lived long enough to regret it because he has seen animals he once knew well become extinct. He is lifted in spirit, however, by new technology that could see the dead live again. But he recommends that resurrections be genetically modified to ensure they will not succumb again to humans.
Dr Jonathan Cramb graduated with a PhD in small fossil mammals (i.e., dead rats) from the Queensland University of Technology in 2012. He works as a research assistant in the geology department at the University of Queensland, and an information officer at the Queensland Museum’s Discovery Centre. He spends his time at the museum telling small children that their dinosaur bone is just an ordinary rock. He enjoys his job.
Roger Kitching heads the Arthropod Diversity Lab at Griffith University. His interests are in understanding patternsand processes of biodiversity using some of the most abundant and diverse organisms – the arthropods. He heads the Biodiversity Research theme of the Centre of Innovative Conservation Strategies.
MC for the evening, Tim Low is a biologist and prize-winning best-selling author of six books about nature and conservation. He is also a co-editor or Wildlife Australia magazine, for which he recently wrote a major article about Australia’s extinctions over the past 50 years. The Sydney Morning Herald has described Tim as a ‘classic Australian scientific stirrer’.
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