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Saturday, January 30, 2016

From the News: Zebra cousin went extinct 100 years ago. Now, it's back.

Officially, the last quagga - a zebra-like equid from South Africa that was only partially striped - went extinct last century, the last individual dying at the Amsterdam Zoo, leaving us with only a few black-and-white photos and taxidermy mounts to remember it by.  Unofficially, it's back... at least, something quagga-ish is back.  Scientists have selectively bred plains zebra to create an animal that at least looks like the quagga.  But is it a quagga?

That's harder to say.  For one thing, it's hard to say exactly what a quagga is.  For the brief history that Europeans and quaggas shared, the relationship was mostly conducted down the barrel of a gun.  Little is known about its behavior, it's adaptations, heck, it's not even known if it was a separate species or a subspecies of plains zebra.  If the later, then it is certainly possible that some of those genes were floating around with other zebras... in which case the researchers simply bred it back, sort of like the Heck brothers and their aurochs.

Personally, I don't buy it.  On a superficial level, I don't think the Rau quagga (as they are called) even look too much like quagga.  Secondly, an animal isn't just its DNA and genes - it's also its behavior.  How can we know that Rau quagga actually act like quagga?  Thirdly, I worry that this is a cool experiment, but one that will divert time and money and efforts from saving species that we still have.  Will researchers be shifting their attention from studying other animals to the glamorous new cause that is the quagga?  Will zoo spaces be taken up by quagga that could go to other endangered species?  Will these quagga be self-sufficient in the wild, or always need to be pampered and coddled?  I have doubts.

Lastly, I always worry that stunts like this dampen the public's interest in saving endangered species.  After all, if extinction isn't forever, why fear it?

To learn more about this experiment, check out the Breeding-Back Blog.  

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