‘Reinventing’ the quagga
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.
Quaggas were once abundant in dry grasslands of the present-day Western Cape, Eastern Cape and southern Free State, and were distinguished from other zebras by having the usual vivid black and white stripes on the front part of the body only. In the mid-section the stripes faded and the dark, inter-stripe spaces became wider; the rear parts were plain brown. The name is derived from a Khoikhoi word for “zebra” and is onomatopoeic, resembling the quagga’s call.
After the close relationship between the quagga and surviving zebras was discovered, the Quagga Project was started by Dr Reinhold Rau (1932-2006) of Iziko Museums of Cape Town. He attempted to re-create the quagga by selective breeding (“breeding back”) from a founder population of southern Plains Zebra in an attempt to retrieve at least the genes responsible for the quagga’s characteristic striping pattern. These experiments took place on the slopes of Table Mountain near Rhodes Memorial and in various game reserves.
On January 20, 2005, Henry, a foal of the Quagga Project, was born. By early 2006, the third and fourth generations of the project had produced animals that looked very much like preserved specimens of the quagga, but almost certainly do not have their full range of genetic characteristics. Today, a few dozen rebred quaggas are happily grazing on the slopes of Table Mountain and have been re-introduced into the Karoo National Park, Addo Elephant Park and the Mountain Zebra National Park.
Zebras have, of course, previously been crossbred with other equines (horses and their relatives), such as donkeys, to form hybrids called zeedonks, zonkeys and zorses (collectively “zebroids”). Charles Darwin mentions zebra-donkey and zebra-horse hybrids in two of his books published in 1859 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quagga - cite_note-darwin-51868.
Zebroids are often exhibited as curiosities, although some have been used as riding animals. Domesticated zebras were even used as pack and draught animals, and even as cavalry chargers and to deliver post, in the early colonial settlements at the Cape of Good Hope.
l Mike Bruton was the founding director of the Cape Town Science Centre and is director of imagineering at MTE Studios. He wrote Great South African Inventions (Cambridge University Press).