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Species loss, especially the loss of keystone species, can have devastating effects on the ecosystem. This paper describes the history of the unique Quagga and how it became extinct as a result of ruthless hunting, over a century ago. The novel “Quagga Project” aims to reverse the extinction of the Quagga through selectively breeding back the animal by mating individuals with Quagga-like traits. This project has, thus far, had some success, with the final creation expected to be morphologically similar to the original Quagga. It is anticipated that the animal will then be reintroduced into its natural environment.
This paper aims to provide a background on this extinct zebra-like species and to discuss the criticisms levelled at the project. The discussion indicates that, unfortunately, the genetic characteristics of the Quagga will never be realised because the species was extinct before these advances in technology became available.
The costs of extinction
Many plant and animal species have become extinct in the face of anthropogenic impacts on ecosystems. The ever-increasing list of extinct species has led to ecologists calling this era the “sixth global extinction” with humans being the greatest culprits.(2) The problem has been intensified by the ever-expanding human population and the increasing hunger for power and wealth. Furthermore, we are only just beginning to understand the intricacies of how the natural world functions and its complicated web of interactions.(3) Discovering this fact after so much damage has already been done, has resulted in a number of extinctions. Many species have been lost without ever knowing or understanding their role in ecosystems, many of which may have significantly contributed to humankind, for example, in the form of contributing to medicine.(4) Therefore, even though a single species may appear to be insignificant or defer the slightest effect on its surroundings, it may indeed prove to be an invaluable resource.
Many organisations have been created to curb the loss of biodiversity and restore natural ecosystems through new legal instruments.(5) However, only a handful of projects have focused on reversing the effects of extinction through recreating an extinct species from existent sources of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).(6) The Quagga Project is one such project.(7)
What is a Quagga?
The uniquely South African Quagga (Equus Quagga Quagga), one of six subspecies of the plains zebra(8) (Equus Quagga), has been extinct for 128 years.(9) It owed its uniqueness to an unusual colour pattern: the front parts of its body were similar to that of the plains zebra with its characteristic black and white stripes, while its hind parts resembled a horse or donkey.(10) This confounded taxonomists because there was no evidence to prove that it was related to the horse or the zebra. Modern genetic analyses have however confirmed that although the Quagga has often been thought of as a hybrid between the horse or donkey and the zebra, it is in fact officially a true subspecies of the plains zebra.(11)
The grassland of the Karoo and the southern Free State of South Africa were home to the Quagga.(12) These grasslands were few and far between and inhabited by settlers with livestock which grazed these same grasslands.(13) The Quagga, among other grazers, were considered as competition for the settlers’ livestock and were subsequently hunted. These grazers also provided meat and hides for the settlers.(14) Typically, conservation efforts kick in before a species becomes extinct; however, when this animal was still in existence, zebras were collectively called “Quaggas” and the true Quagga had become extinct before anyone even knew it was different from the rest.(15)
Bringing back the Quagga
The Quagga Project, founded by Reinhold Rau, was established in 1987 and aims to reintroduce Quagga into the wild.(16) This project uses selective breeding techniques, whereby the breeder selects favourable traits expressed in a male and a female, and breeds them. The offspring of these individuals should then theoretically, depending on the nature of the traits, express a combination of these traits. The zebras being used for these breeding experiments were selected from 2 000 zebras in Namibia’s Etosha National Park.(17) They were selected for their Quagga-like characteristics, to facilitate the selective breeding process. The physical traits that are preferred in this project are fewer stripes on the hind parts of the body and the legs, as well as the brownish colour of the coat.(18)
These traits are physical in nature and, as such, only limited genetic differences will be found.(19) If this project is successful in the future, the ‘created’ species will have to be re-named because it will not be the same species, but rather, will simply resemble the Quagga. The proposed name for this new species is ‘Rau Quagga’ after the founder of the project.(20) After more than two decades of selective breeding, the project is now showing some positive results. The latest foal, born in 2005, has a physical appearance that is very similar to that of a Quagga,(21) and further breeding will hopefully result in even more success.
Criticism and implications
Although many fully support the Quagga Project, the Project still faces considerable criticism. Criticisms of the project include the assertion that mitochondrial DNA of the Quagga was used to determine its connection and not its genomic DNA.(22) This is because there are no live individuals in existence and the museum specimens that were used for mitochondrial DNA analyses have deteriorated severely, making it impossible to extract genomic DNA.(23) Another important argument is that the project only attempts to create a similar looking animal, not taking into account the genetics.(24) It is possible that the Quagga may have been adapted, for example, to a specific habitat which would be carried in the DNA, and this new species will not acquire this.(25) Therefore when the ‘Rau Quagga’ is reintroduced into their former grasslands, they theoretically will not be adapted to it. This being said, the indigenous grasses of the Quagga and the plains zebra are not significantly different and therefore there should be no problem with a reintroduction(26) although nothing is certain because we know too little about this species.
Other genetic variations may exist between the “Rau Quagga” and the true Quagga that may never be realised and therefore we may never know how similar they really are.(27) In terms of population, the Quagga were present in their thousands, which would have provided a substantial gene-pool for genetic variation.(28) If only a few individuals are used to fathom a substantial population, genetic variation within this population will be small and the risk of extinction of the species, through stochastic environments, and the accumulation of mutations in the genome, will be high.(29) Although, future advances in technology may allow us to manipulate the DNA of the populations and create a viable population. Furthermore, the only remnants of the Quagga lie in the physical appearance of the animal and a replicate of these features will be the closest we can come to recreating this extinct species for now.
People from different ethical and religious backgrounds will have different opinions on the Quagga Project. One of these opinions includes the view of selective breeding as a form of ‘playing God’(30) whereby humans breed certain individuals to create a desirable offspring. Examples of these practices include pets,(31) livestock,(32) crops(33) etc. Similar selections are used to genetically modify crops and livestock to increase yields.(34),(35) This practice is frowned upon by many members of the public.(36) The Quagga Project, however, differs from these examples in that its aims are for conservation and undoing the wrongs of previous naive generations, rather than for economic growth.
The human race has far too often wiped out entire species or demolished ecosystems of which we know nothing. Ecosystems have proven to be crucial in terms of resources and functionality, and they are often delicate with their labyrinth of interactions, symbioses and dependencies. The Quagga was lost over a century ago as a direct result of overhunting. However, a current South African project, the Quagga Project, is recreating this animal through selective breeding techniques. Progress is encouraging, but the final results may never truly replace the Quagga due to a lack of knowledge regarding the intrinsic genetic make-up of the original Quagga. The recreated species will only resemble the appearance of the true Quagga but may be genetically distinct. This presents a stark reminder of the impact that we, as a human race, are having on the natural world and the difficulty, and at times impossibility, of reversing these impacts.
(2) Leakey, R. and Lewin, R., 1995. The sixth extinction. London: Phoenix Paperbacks.
(3) Costanza, R. et al., 1997. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and the natural capital. Nature, 387, pp. 253-260.
(4) ‘Why do we need this resource’, Plant medicine, www.plant-medicine.com.
(5) South African Government online, http://www.info.gov.za.
(6) Stephan Faris, ‘Breeding ancient cattle back from extinction’, Times, 12 Feb 2010, http://www.time.com.
(7) ‘The Quagga revival’, The Quagga Project South Africa, http://www.quaggaproject.org.
(8) Groves, C. P. and Catherine H. Bell., 2004. New investigations on the taxonomy of the zebra’s genus Equus, subgenus Hippotigris. Mammalian Biology, 69, pp. 182-196.
(10) E.H. Harley, ‘ Scoring Quaggas – methods and analyses’, The Quagga Project South Africa, http://www.quaggaproject.org.
(11) Haley Harvey, ‘Back to life’, Travel and Adventure, 2008,http://www.quaggaproject.org.
(12) ‘Why the Quagga became extinct’, The Quagga Project South Africa, http://www.quaggaproject.org.
(16) ‘The Quagga revival’, The Quagga Project South Africa, http://www.quaggaproject.org.
(17) D.T. Max, ‘Can you revive an extinct animal?’, New York Times, 1 Jan 2006, http://www.nytimes.com.
(18) ‘The Quagga revival’, The Quagga Project South Africa, http://www.quaggaproject.org.
(20) The Quaggaproject, www.Quaggaproject.org.
(21) E.H. Harley, ‘ Scoring Quaggas – methods and analyses’, The Quagga Project South Africa, http://www.quaggaproject.org.
(22) Edward R. Winstead, ‘In South Africa, the Quagga Project breeds success’, Genome News Network, 20 Oct 2000, http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org.
(25) The Quagga project, http://www.quaggaproject.org.
(27) Edward R. Winstead, ‘In South Africa, the Quagga Project breeds success’, Genome News Network, 20 Oct 2000, http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org.
(29) Lynch, M. Conery, J. and Burger, R., 1995. Mutation accumulation and the extinction of small populations. The American Naturalist, 146(4), pp. 489-518.
(30) Malherbe, H., ‘The question of ethics and cloning’, Archimedes, March 2003, http://www.saasta.ac.za.
(31) A. Pollack, ‘Gene-altering revolution nears the pet store: glow-in-the-dark fish’, New York Times, 22 Nov 2003, http://www.nytimes.com.
(32) Arranz, J.J. et al., 1998. A QTL affecting milk yield and composition maps to bovine chromosome 20: a confirmation. Animal Genetics, 29, pp. 107-115.
(33) Babu, R. Nair, S.K. Prasanna, B.M. and Gupta, H.S., 2004. Integrating marker-assisted selection in crop breeding – prospects and challenges. Current Science, 87(5), pp. 607-619.
(34) Williams, P.E. Tait, C.A. Innes, G.M. and Newbold, C.J. 1991. Effects of the inclusion of yeast culture (Saccharmyces cerevisiae plus growth medium) in the diet of dairy cows on milk yield and forage degradation and fermentation patterns in the rumen of steers. Journal of Animal Science, 69(7), pp. 3016-3026.
(35) Donmez, E. Sears, R.G. Shroyer, J.P. and Paulsen, G.M. 2001. Genetic gain in yield attributes if Winter Wheat in the Great Plains. Crop Science, 41, pp. 1412-1419.
(36) Hoban, T.J., 2004.Public attitudes towards agricultural biotechnology. ESA working paper No. 04-09.
Written by Wayne Brazier (1)