If we re-create a lost animal subspecies, is it an invention? Not in the conventional sense of the word, but perhaps we need to rethink our definition of an “invention” in the light of advances in animal husbandry as well as biotechnology, nanotechnology and other fields?
The quagga was originally classified as a separate species, Equus quagga, in 1778. Over the next 50 years many other species of zebras were described by naturalists. Because of the wide variation in coat patterns (no two zebras are identical), it was difficult to distinguish true species. Taxonomists were confronted by a variety of described “species” and no easy way to tell which of them were true, which were subspecies, and which were just natural variants.
Before this confusion had been resolved, the quagga was hunted to extinction for its meat and hide as well as to preserve grazing for domesticated stock. The last wild quagga was shot in the late 1870s, and the last specimen in captivity, a mare, died at the Artis Magistra Zoo in Amsterdam on August, 12, 1883. The only quagga to have been photographed alive was a mare at the Zoological Society of London’s Zoo in Regent’s Park in 1870.
There are 24 known stuffed and mounted quaggas in museums worldwide, including a rare foal in the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town.
The quagga was the first extinct animal to have its DNA studied when DNA from mounted specimens was successfully extracted in 1984. Genetic research at the Smithsonian Institution demonstrated that the quagga was, in fact, not a separate species at all, but a subspecies that diverged from the extremely variable Plains Zebra between 120 000 and 290 000 years ago.