Can a zebra change its stripes?

Some of you may have seen this story that is doing the rounds currently where a South African team of scientists claim to have bred a quagga, an extinct animal.

The quagga was a subspecies of zebra that went extinct in 1883, mainly due to hunting and domestication. However a team of scientists have been working on genetically engineering a quagga for some time now and claim to have succeeded.

 

Quagga_photo
The only existing photograph of a quagga.

Quagga are very distinct animals with a zebraesque front half and plain brown hindquarters, sort of half zebra, half horse. “Project Quagga” did indeed produce an animal that looks like a quagga so is being viewed as a success. The team conducted selective breeding of existing zebra subspecies in order to produce an animal with the distinct quagga like appearance.

Whilst genetic screening and selective breeding is very clever as an academic exercise it is hard to see exactly what the point in this was.  The original quagga was a subspecies of zebra, not something particularly unusual. The plains zebra or Equus quagga has 7 subspecies yet we just refer to them all as zebra, most of us unaware that there even are 7 subspecies. The quagga, or Equus quagga quagga as it should be, was simply another subspecies (quagga is the native African word for Zebra). Subspecies is a fairly loose term; generally different subspecies can interbreed but don’t, due normally to geographical isolation. All that has happened in this project is that another subspecies of zebra has been bred to look like a quagga.

Unsurprisingly the project has drawn a lot of criticism from those who feel it is a waste of time and we could be working on conserving what we have rather than faking a new species. Head of the project, Professor Harley disagrees saying “If we can retrieve the animals or retrieve at least the appearance of the quagga, then we can say we’ve righted a wrong.”

This implies that we feel guilty about losing the quagga and are trying to roll out the replacement model in order to “fix” the environment.  It is unclear what niche the quagga orignally occupied and whether the other zebra have already filled that niche in today’s landscape. After all, the quagga has been gone for over 100 years and the landscape is very different to when they were around. The science team however, argues that the landscape is not significantly different and if plains zebra can survive then so can these new quagga. This is undoubtedly true as the animal they have bred is just a different coloured zebra and  so of course it can survive where existing zebra survive. This being the case then surely they will just occupy the niche that our existing zebra occupy and not make any ecological difference?

I don’t really see how we can say we have righted a wrong here. What exactly have humans achieved here?

“Dear Mother Nature,

Sorry about the quagga. We’ve no idea what they were like but here is something that looks similar.

Regards, humanity”

The Project Quagga website goes further and says “It is hoped that if this revival is successful, in due course herds showing the phenotype of the original quagga will again roam the plains of the Karoo.”

I don’t want to drag this point out, but reproducing the phenotype (appearance) of a quagga is not the same as having a quagga roam the plains. These animals “might not be genetically the same,” said project co-leader Mike Gregor, who admits that “there might have been other genetic characteristics and adaptations that we haven’t taken into account”. They argue that since we can’t prove that the new quagga do not behave differently to the original quagga then there is no case to answer. They say the “definition of the Quagga can only rest on its well-described morphological characteristics”. This essentially means that if it looks the same then it is the same as the original quagga.

The whole thing is a bit like selectively breeding huskies or malamutes and then claiming you produced a wolf. If we are feeling guilty about the extinction then adding a different coloured zebra onto the plains may not be the way to remedy the situation. Incidentally I don’t think that “feeling that we’ve righted a wrong” is the way to go about conservation. It seems rather self-centred to add an animal to an environment just to make ourselves feel better, especially as we have only changed the colour of an animal that already lives there and not actually added anything.

South Africa has massive problems with rhino and elephant poaching and so perhaps selectively breeding a non-endangered animal with no ecological merit may not be the wisest use of time and resources. Perhaps we should focus on saving what we have rather than changing the colour of a zebra?

 

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