Tenacious Beasts is packed with tales of near-extinct animals making a comeback

Science | Gregory Beatty

There are creatures living today that scientists believed were extinct yet rose, zombie-like from the grave, to take up life again. These species are called Lazarus taxa, after the Bible story about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

Their joke name? “Elvis taxa”. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humour?

In paleontology, Lazarus taxa involves an animal that disappeared from the fossil record for millions of years, then suddenly reappeared. That’s not to say they rose, Lazarus-like, from extinction. The fossil record is a spotty one. But it does suggest a rebound after a period of relative scarcity.

Documented cases of “Elvis re-entering the building”, as it were, date back to Cambrian times 500 million years ago. The Coelacanth is probably the best known. The giant bottom-dwelling filter feeder was thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago, but was rediscovered in 1938 off South Africa. The Laotian rock rat, Majorcan midwife toad and Nightcap owl are other memorable prehistoric Lazarus species — if only for their cool names.

In modern-day conservation, Lazarus taxa refers to species that have been observed going extinct but then miraculously reappear. The Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, Pinatubo Volcano Mouse and New Caledonian Crested Gecko are three, again cool, examples.

In fact, those geckos have returned so successfully you can find captive bred specimens in Saskatchewan pet shops. (They’re very cute.)

It’s not that these species are guaranteed long-term survival. If their numbers and range are too small, they may ultimately be doomed to extinction.

But they do have one advantage. If Christopher Preston was to sum it up in one word, it would be: tenacity.

Preston is an environmental philosopher at University of Montana, and recent author of Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries that Change How We Think about Animals.

As much fun as Lazarus taxa are, Preston’s interest at the moment are threatened species being restored to old habitat.

“I don’t talk about Lazarus species in the book. The ones I write about are still known to be around, just in very small numbers, so it’s not quite the same but the spirit is certainly there,” he said in a recent phone interview from his Montana home.

Tenacious Beasts chronicles the stories of over a dozen animals that, at this point anyway, are battling back from near extinction — and in some cases, even thriving. The book also tackles broader ethical issues around wildlife restoration — and when Preston wrote it, he knew he was walking a moral tightrope.

“I’m always very self-conscious when I present these ideas in front of wildlife biologists, for example,” says Preston.

“It would be easy for them to say ‘This guy is ridiculously optimistic. The situation is much more bleak than that.’ The last thing I want is for people to say ‘Oh, we don’t need to worry about wildlife. Apparently they are doing fine,’ because that is not the case,” he says.

Preston makes that clear with some sobering stats on page five of Tenacious Beasts. Wildlife populations have dropped 20 per cent in the last century. Over 900 species have gone extinct since industrialization (c.1800). A million more species are currently threatened with extinction. Many have populations under 1,000 individuals.

Even the species profiled in Tenacious Beasts aren’t safe, says Preston. He points to the humpback whale.

“They had been doing quite well, but I read recently that climate change is going to impact their habitat and food sources significantly over the next few decades,” he says. “Even animals that are doing well have threats hanging over them.”

Despite that buzzkill of a reality, Preston still finds inspiration in their stories.

“Some of these animals are remarkably resilient and adaptable,” he says. “They might be able to shift their range or their shape to cope with challenges, and surprise us with how well they do.”

Wolves & Bison

Born and raised in Britain and currently residing in Montana, Preston confines himself to Europe and North America in Tenacious Beasts. Two stories are centred in Montana: wolves and bison.

The former were naturally encroaching on the U.S. northwest but got a boost when a pack from Canada was transplanted to Yellowstone Park in 1995.

The bison story is more complex. Vast herds that once roamed Turtle Island were wiped out during colonization to make way for ranching. The herds that exist today, like the one at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, are managed, and animals move regularly between herds to freshen the gene pool.

“This is something I wrestle with in the book, and I don’t have a complete answer to it,” says Preston. “Some animals need hands-on [management] for many decades, and maybe even forever. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but perhaps that’s what we have to do for them.

“Other species, we don’t need to do anything beyond stop killing them,” he says. “The wolf is an example there. They are one of the most adaptable animals in the world.”

Both wildlife initiatives met with resistance, particularly wolves  — which early settlers had hunted and trapped relentlessly to protect livestock.

“To hear some of the talk, you’d think wolves were taking a fair number of cattle. But numbers from Montana’s Bureau of Livestock — which are likely to be livestock friendly — say wolves take .0016% of cattle. They are not the existential threat you might think if you listen to the rhetoric,” says Preston.

“I can’t say how many times I heard ‘The problem isn’t ecological or biological, it’s cultural.’ If you’re a rancher and have family stories about wolves taking your cattle, suspicion and even hatred is part of your identity. But as science tells us more about how to live safely alongside animals, and what they really want and what is just myth, we can figure out ways of co-existing on the land,” he says.

Risks & Rewards

Once reintroduced to an ecosystem, a keystone species can have a transformative effect.

Preston cites the example of Pacific salmon. Blocked from swimming upstream to spawn by dams and other obstacles, populations plummeted. But when spawning grounds are reopened, numbers surge. That means food for people, not to mention other predators like bears and raptors.

Scavengers and insects also benefit when salmon spawn and die, and bones and other remains fertilize trees in the area, which improves the health of the forest and stream.

While no one in the conservation community doubts the benefits of wildlife restoration, there’s not universal agreement on how to go about it. In Tenacious Beasts, Preston tackles the flashpoint of rewilding.

“Rewilding is many things to different people. But for some, it involves turning a landscape back over to animals, and humans retreat and are forbidden from going in,” he says.

“I think that is too provocative. In many cases we are going to need co-habitation, not retreat and abandonment. I think it’s harmful to the movement to say, ‘We need to evacuate from half the Earth and give it back to animals.’ I’m fine with wilderness areas that are mainly for animals, but I’m very keen to think about co-habitation and what we can do to share our landscape,” he says.

Experiments are being done with wildlife corridors over highways and rail lines, electrified fences to protect livestock, spawning ladders and more, and tips exist for people to limit unwanted wildlife encounters (mostly by removing tempting food sources).

Preston says when he was researching the back stories of the animals, he shook his head at the ruthless way they were pushed to the brink of extinction. Greed and bloodlust were part of it but economics were also involved, with people trying to provide for their families.

“But in the course of doing that, it seems they lost their sense of compassion and empathy,” says Preston.

“The things that went on with coyotes, beavers, wolves and whales, it boggles the mind that there was no sense that there might be something morally wrong with the suffering being caused. Fortunately, animals have advocates now. But it still lingers,” he says, pointing to the tragedy of whale deaths from fishing gear and ship strikes.

“In environmental philosophy there’s a term called anthropomorphism. It was always supposed to be bad. If you projected a human trait onto an animal, you were losing your objectivity. But when we look at the data that’s being gathered from tracking collars, trail cams and close scientific observation of animals, what we are seeing is they are far more like us than different,” he says.

Of course, Preston’s book focuses on Europe and North America. Elsewhere in the world, many cultures have long had a more holistic relationship with wildlife.

Ethicists studying the difference have homed in on two factors, says Preston.

“If you read an environmental philosophy book, it tends to bring up Christianity and capitalism pretty early,” he says.

“Is there a spiritual or [ideological] orientation that tells you to dominate and control? Or to share and respect? You can clearly see that with many Indigenous cultures,” says Preston.

“If it’s to share and respect, you’re likely to figure out ways to cohabit,” says Preston. “If your orientation is to dominate and control, you’re not.” ■

How Woolly is the Mammoth?

Genetics is often a bone of contention in wildlife conservation. Some conservationists are purists. They argue that if an animal’s genome becomes corrupt by interbreeding — as the bison’s has with cattle — it invalidates the animal.

“Purists would say the genetic inheritance that was passed down over generations independent of humans is the most valuable thing,” says Montana environmental philosopher Christopher Preston.

“It makes intuitive sense, where there’s an authenticity that seems important,” Preston says. “But in some situations we need to recognize there have been changes, and what was once pure no longer is.

“But it’s a tricky issue. Would I rather have a polar bear that is pure with no trace of human influence in its genome. Yeah, I probably would. But are we likely to get that, probably not, as climate change continues to wreak its havoc,” he says.

Preston wrote about the role of genetics in conservation in The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World (2018).

Right now, de-extinction is the stuff of fictional theme parks à la Jurassic Park. But as genetic knowledge and technology continue to advance, people are talking seriously about resurrecting extinct species — among them, the Woolly mammoth, Pyrenean ibex and Auroch.

While Preston marvels at the science, he’s not an uncritical supporter.

“There are two problems,” he says. “One is the idea of bringing an animal back to a place where it hasn’t roamed for a century, or maybe a thousand years. The other is you are probably going to have to gestate this animal inside the womb of a surrogate.”

 With the Woolly mammoth that would be an Indian elephant.

“You’re not exposed to the same mitochondrial DNA when the fetus is gestating, and then it’s not exposed to the same cultural environment when it’s born,” says Preston. “It doesn’t have a Woolly mammoth parent. Then it’s not exposed to the same environment because there are different plants, animals, bacteria, a different climate.

“You have to ask if you are getting the animal you thought you were,” says Preston.

“Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it,” adds Preston. “Maybe a proxy animal that can perform an ecological service similar to the previous animal is what you want. But what I don’t like about de-extinction is it’s often portrayed as if you’re getting the animal back, and making amends for losing it in the first place.

“You’re not,” he says. /Gregory Beatty