Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Specimens like this mammoth skeleton in the American Museum of Natural History may offer insights into extinction prevention.

January 26, 2022

Prof. Corrie Moreau on How Natural History Museums Aid in Extinction Prevention

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On Oct. 5, 2021, Prof. Corrie Moreau, ecology and evolutionary biology, published a correspondence explaining why funding natural history museums are a better method of extinction prevention than de-extinction projects. 

De-extinction refers to the process of producing an organism that was previously extinct. Recent de-extinction efforts include start-up Biogenics company Colossal’s project to resurrect the wooly mammoth using $15 million in private funds. 

Moreau said that funding natural history museums over de-extinction efforts would be more effective in preventing future extinctions because it’s a safer and more rewarding method in the long run. 

Scientists rarely know the range of a given species, where it lives and for how long it has lived. However, natural history museums hold a wealth of information about extinct and current species. Moreau said that this information can be used to trace species at risk and find ways to prolong or altogether prevent their future extinction. 

Moreau’s correspondence on de-extinction emerged following a project that sequenced the DNA of the Xerces blue, an extinct butterfly. At the time, some of Moreau’s colleagues had come together with the idea to resurrect this extinct species. Moreau, however, disagreed. Because such a project would take immense funding and time to accomplish, Moreau said that it was not the best use of their resources.

“In my opinion, we should be putting our resources to helping protect what’s already teetering on the cusp — those [species] that are alive now on the planet before we try to put resources into bringing something back,” Moreau said.

In response to the $15 million endeavor by Colossal to bring back the wooly mammoth, Moreau said she supports any endeavor that incites scientific excitement, especially preservation efforts. However, she recognizes the limitations of monetary resources and expressed that those should go first to historical efforts.

Natural history museums contain thousands of years worth of information, essentially serving as a scientific gold mine, according to Moreau. They contain species that have gone extinct thousands of years ago as well as those that have gone extinct more recently. 

“These museums are a window into the past of where species were and what their genetic diversity was like,” said Moreau. “Even species that are around today, we can ask questions [about] because we have these long series of collections that we can learn from.”

According to Moreau, Cornell has some of the best collections in the world, including the Insect Collection, the Museum of Vertebrates and the Lab of Ornithology. The goal of these collections is to create a space on campus where classes can actually come to observe and work with the current specimens.

“Ultimately, hopefully, one day…we’d love to create a space on campus where people can see the real [collections], not a picture in a book and not a replica,” said Moreau.