Fiona Hanson  /  AP
Professor Phil Rainbow, zoology director at the Natural History Museum in London, shows off a Polynesian tree snail, the DNA of which will number among samples taken from endangered species and stored in a "frozen ark."
msnbc.com news services
updated 7/27/2004 9:29:19 AM ET 2004-07-27T13:29:19

A project aimed at safeguarding genetic material from thousands of endangered species on Tuesday boarded its first passengers, among them an Arabian oryx, a spotted sea horse and a British field cricket.

Dubbed the Frozen Ark, the project by three British institutions doesn’t include any living animals, but hopes to collect frozen DNA and tissue specimens from thousands of endangered species.

“Natural catastrophes apart, the current rate of animal loss is the greatest in the history of the earth and the fate of animal species is desperate,” said Phil Rainbow, keeper of zoology at London’s Natural History Museum.

Like Noah, the scientists harbor hopes of repopulating the Earth.

“I think it will be used for cloning eventually,” said Professor Alan Cooper, director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Center at Oxford University.

Bring back some extinct animals?
“We’re cautious about cloning because it gets so sexed up, but who knows what we’re going to be using these specimens for in the future,” said Cooper, a member of the Frozen Ark steering committee.

“I believe you can make a case for bringing animals like, say, the tiger, back. There would be a pretty strong argument for doing that versus letting them go extinct.”

The principal collection will be set up at the Natural History Museum and the Institute of Zoology, and there are plans for duplicate collections elsewhere in the world to safeguard the survival of the samples.

With some 10,000 species listed as in danger of extinction within 30 years, the ark will fill quickly. The project will be guided by the World Conservation Union’s red list of threatened species, which deems 1,000 as critically endangered and 33 species as already extinct in the wild.

Professor Bryan Clarke, a population geneticist at Nottingham University, said the project would not immediately save any species from extinction. “The Frozen Ark is not a conservation measure but rather a back-up plan for when all best conservation efforts have failed,” Clarke said.

“The recent progress in molecular biology has been so fast that we cannot predict with any certainty what may be possible using this genetic information within the next few decades. Without it nothing can be done.”

Cooper added that there would be little point in trying to revive some species. “It would be impossible to clone the dodo anyway, but even if you could, what would you do with it? There’s no environment left for the dodo,” Cooper said.

Some of the first on ark
The first DNA samples included:

  • Scimitar-horned oryx, from North Africa, threatened by expanded deserts, over-hunting and war.
  • Socorro dove, unique to Socorro, one of the remote Revillagegido Islands off the west coast of Mexico.
  • Mountain chicken, actually a frog, found on the Caribbean islands of Montserrat and Dominica where it is eaten by humans.
  • Banggai cardinal, a fish about 1-2 inches long found on coral reefs around the Banggai islands of Indonesia.
  • Yellow sea horse, endangered by hunting for Chinese medicine, pets and souvenirs.
  • Seychelles Fregate beetle, found only on the Seychelles island of Fregate.
  • British field cricket, endangered by loss of grassland habitat.
  • Polynesian tree snails, including more than 100 species native to Pacific volcanic islands.

Additional information on the project, and the ark's first passengers, is online at www.nhm.ac.uk/news/items/frozen_ark270704.html.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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