Home > Random grumblings > Resurrection Biology and Behavioural Ecology

Resurrection Biology and Behavioural Ecology

To begin with, I think it would be best to ensure that you know what the hell resurrection biology and behavioural ecology mean before we move onto why this is interesting and important. So, resurrection biology is the notion that we can create a real-life Jurassic Park of extinct animals, or reintroduce extinct animals to an ecosystem by reconstructing their genetic code and then incubating the resulting egg in a related organism. Behavioural ecology is the study of what animals do and why they do it, instead of asking ‘does an animal have horns?’ it asks ‘what do the horns do?’ and this question may have different answers for different organisms, for some it might be defence against predators while for others it might purely be to display the health and vitality of the animal.

Now, why are these two fields important to each other? Well, it has been suggested that we might be able to reintroduce, for example, dodos, woolly mammoths or thylacines (Tasmanian Wolves) to their old ranges. It comes up in the news every now and then and every time it is, they rarely discuss the ecological implications of such a reintroduction could cause, at least that is my faint impression from the back of my hermit’s cave.

Source: http://forum.phish.net/thread.php?thread=1375181970

Imagine these guys roaming across Russia, Northern Europe and Canada.

First off, let’s talk reintroductions of endangered species. Endangered species are notorious for causing problems for people trying to help them survive. The image of giant pandas stubbornly refusing to mate comes to mind. A study by Jule, Leaver and Lea entitled “The Effects of Captive Experience on Reintroduction Survival in Carnivores: A Review and Analysis” found

the results of the ANOVA show that wild-caught carnivores survived significantly more (53%) than captive-born carnivores (32%), F(1,4.66) = 17.697, p = 0.01.

For the uninitiated, this means that animals caught from the wild and introduced to an area where they had been wiped out were nearly twice as likely to survive as those born in the zoo. Now, this is a very good example study to illustrate my point, which is raised probably more eloquently in the paper, that the behavioural ecological differences such as confidence near humans, feeding behaviours et c. (Though it is very important to point out that the paper did not look into these differences, doubtless due to the lack of data available on this matter) can potentially have a major impact on the survivability of an animal being reintroduced into habitat. And these are animals which are still alive and so have parental guides to how they should act!

Imagine a dodo, now imagine all the things it does in a lifetime, are you sure your imagination is entirely accurate? This is the behavioural ecological problem for resurrection biology: we don’t know how to create the environment which a dodo would develop in so would we actually make a dodo? This point is pretty Jurassic Park, I cannot find the quote online but I believe Dr Alan Grant, in Jurassic Park 3, says something to the effect of “the genetic creations of InGen are not dinosaurs, the last dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago” and while this is not entirely accurate, many dinosaurs continue to thrive today, it’s just that they are covered in feathers and restricted to the dinosaurian group Aves, the birds.

Source: http://aliceinwonderland.wikia.com/wiki/The_Dodo

Ok, so maybe they didn’t smoke pipes and wear waistcoats and wigs, but we cannot be sure of other, less stupid, behaviours that the dodo may have performed.

Getting back on the point, behavioural plasticity within a species is quite high, especially in birds and mammals. I would provide definitive evidence for this point but I don’t know that a study exists which has looked at the plasticity of development in large groups of animals and found this. It’s more of a theoretical argument which, while not as good as a study, is a starting point. Feel free to complain to me that my hypothesis is inaccurate because X, Y, Z. So my reasoning for increased behavioural plasticity in mammals and birds is the fact that there are many and varied studies on many different species of bird and mammal which showed their ability to learn and adapt their behaviours according to the requirements of their environment. The reasoning for the behavioural plasticity of all animals is that it seems far more likely that every species will have at least one epigenetic process involved in their development and thus plasticity in final form. I hope this reasoning is strong enough to stand on its own until some concrete evidence is found to swing the facts one way or the other*.

To move on, the ecosystem which an extinct animal used to be a part of may not exist any more, many species that have been pushed to extinction by humans, went extinct because of habitat loss. Here I would say that the link is difficult to establish so once again, this is me armchair ecologising (Totally a word). But it is reasonable given what Brooks et al. point out about biodiviersity hotspots in their abstract:

Nearly half the world’s vascular plants and one-third of terrestrial vertebrates are endemic to 25 “hotspots” of biodiversity, each of which has at least 1500 endemic plant species. None of these hotspots have more than one-third of their pristine habitat remaining. Historically, they covered 12% of the land’s surface, but today their intact habitat covers only 1.4% of the land.

To understand this, endemic means ‘only found there’ so, for example, kangaroos are endemic to Australia. Biodiversity is a measure of how many different types of organism are in a particular place, so a rainforest is more diverse than an ice floe. Look at it this way, hotspots of biodiversity are like cities full of different people and if we destroy a city, we kill many more unique individuals than if we destroyed a farming community. Even before we made the mass migration into cities during the Industrial Revolution, even though most people would live in a farming community, because they are so diffuse, less people would die if the same area of farmland were destroyed compared to a city.

So the lack of good habitat would make reviving a species a mute point, not to mention that the lack of habitat might mean that symbioses, predator-prey relations, parasite-host interactions and so on that were present in the animals’ original ecosystem that the animal would not survive in an equivalent ecosystem, such as moving an Orangutan into the Amazon.

To conclude, I would point out that my career in behavioural ecology is probably not even in its infancy, it’s gestating still, and these are the problems I could rattle off. Perhaps given a more skilled or experienced mind, a brighter mind, there are even more issues which could arise for the field of resurrection biology from behavioural ecology.

I hope this hasn’t been too boring for my first post of 2014 and that it gives someone, somewhere a few fun and interesting things to think about, if it has, let me know, if it hasn’t, let me know, feedback is how I can make this blog something worth reading.

*Just a note to say that my suggestion in this paragraph is exactly that, it is a suggestion, it is not a theory, theories require evidence and testing and a whole bunch people doing their utmost to tear it down, and then failing. Theoretical does not mean theory, it means that based on my understanding of how the system works, this may be true; theoretical work is based on theories and experimental work is based on theoretical work.

Advertisements
  1. January 28, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    I’d like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in penning this site. I am hoping to view the same high-grade content by you in the future as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own site now 😉

    • February 1, 2014 at 9:00 pm

      Wow, thanks for the compliment. I didn’t think my writing was that good but if you say so, that’s good enough for me.

      Glad to here you’re getting onto the web, we need more people writing about the things they like and are passionate about. I started this blog to improve my scientific communication skills and to try to get a bit more of a conversation going between the scientists and the rest of the world because there’s a lot of cool stuff out there that people just don’t know about.

  2. January 29, 2014 at 5:31 am

    I believe what you published was actually very logical. However, what about this? suppose you wrote a catchier title? I mean, I don’t want to tell you how to run your blog, but what if you added something that grabbed a person’s attention? I mean BLOG_TITLE is a little boring. You should glance at Yahoo’s front page and watch how they write news headlines to get people interested. You might add a related video or a related picture or two to get people interested about what you’ve written. In my opinion, it might make your posts a little bit more interesting.

    • February 1, 2014 at 9:03 pm

      Yeah, unfortunately, I’m not the best at naming things. I come from the Leonard of Quirm school of titles and names, e.g. for his machine capable of travelling submersed in a marine environment he came up with the name of “Going-Under-The-Water-Safely Device”. (Source: Discworld Wiki).

      I’ve taken advice before and am open to it now as I’m still very new to the blogging game and don’t get very many views. I’ll take what you’ve said on board definitely, I think it makes sense so, yeah, thanks a lot for the feedback.

  3. January 29, 2014 at 10:35 am

    Exceptional post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Appreciate it!

    • February 1, 2014 at 9:06 pm

      I accidentally republished this post on the day I was trying to publish a follow up discussing the ways in which resurrection biology could be used to solve problems we have today such as food shortage and ecological devastation. Don’t know if you spotted that one, but it might be worth a look. Any idea what you had in mind for more information? I would go into more detail but the blog isn’t popular by any means and shied away from putting more detail in.

  4. January 31, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    I hɑve read a feա just right stuff here. Certainly νzlue
    bօokmaring for revisiting. I surprise how so much attempt you
    place to make such a wonderful informative sіte.

  1. January 29, 2014 at 8:27 am
    URL

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: