Professor Corrie Moreau explains how natural history museums help prevent extinction


On October 5, 2021, Professor Corrie Moreau, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, published a correspondence explaining why funding natural history museums is a better method of extinction prevention than de-extinction projects.

Extinction refers to to the production process of an organism that was previously extinct. Recent extinct efforts include the start-up project Biogenics Colossal to resurrect the woolly mammoth using $15 million in private funds.

Moreau said 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 how long it has lived. However, natural history museums hold a wealth of information on extinct and current species. Moreau said this information can be used to track species at risk and find ways to prolong or completely prevent their future extinction.

Moreau’s correspondence on disextinction emerged following a project who sequenced the DNA of Xerces blue, an extinct butterfly. At the time, some of Moreau’s colleagues had the idea of ​​resuscitating this extinct species. Moreau, however, disagreed. Because such a project would require immense funding and time, Moreau said it was not the best use of their resources.

“In my view, we should be devoting our resources to helping protect what is already on the verge of tipping over – those [species] who are alive now on the planet before trying to put resources into bringing something back,” Moreau said.

In response to Colossal’s $15 million effort to bring back the woolly mammoth, Moreau said she supports any endeavor that generates scientific enthusiasm, especially conservation efforts. However, she acknowledges the limitations of monetary resources and said these should first go to historical efforts.

Natural history museums contain thousands of years of information, essentially serving as a scientific goldmine, according to Moreau. They contain species that became extinct thousands of years ago as well as those that became extinct more recently.

“These museums are a window into the past of where the species were and their genetic diversity,” Moreau said. “Even the species that exist today, one 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 vertebrate museum and the ornithology laboratory. The purpose of these collections is to create a space on campus where classes can actually come and observe and work with current specimens.

“At the end of the day hopefully one day…we would like to create a space on campus where people can see the real [collections]not a picture in a book and not a line,” Moreau said.


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