Future zoos to have woolly mammoths, tiger robots

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It's 2060, and you're planning to visit your grandkids in California. You know they love animals, so you're thinking of taking them to a zoo. Let's see what your search results pull up:

A group of 21 zoo professionals and researchers came up with these future zoo possibilities and more at a conference held at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 10-11.


They saw that robotics is infiltrating every other aspect of life, from automatic vacuum cleaners to intelligent operating systems, said Michael Noonan, a biologist at Canisius College who studies how people and animals interact. "So the implication is that they are clearly coming in the zoo world," he said. The group had mixed responses to whether a robotic zoo would work, however. Some thought they would be exciting; others felt that no matter how realistic the models were, people wouldn't be interested. "That one was left sort of unresolved," Noonan said.

With improving brain science, future zoos might even let people get a glimpse into animals' thoughts with brainwave-reading devices, according to one attendee's presentation, Noonan told InnovationNewsDaily. "It would allow us to connect better to the wolf or dolphin."

The group said cloning technology would eventually come to a point where it would be possible to re-create extinct animals. "No, not dinosaurs," Noonan said, "but things that are feasible and appropriate." Animals that went extinct more recently might be considered appropriate, for example, because they might still have existing habitats and ecological niches on Earth. Animals that were clearly driven to extinction by humans are also candidates. In those cases, some argued that people have an ethical obligation to try to bring back the species they killed off, such as dodo birds. "It's like a human mistake that could be fixed," Noonan said.

Researchers have tissue samples from dodo birds, passenger pigeons, mastodons, a relative of the zebra called the quagga, and a marsupial carnivore called a thylacine or "Tasmanian wolf," which died out in the 1930s, Noonan said. All of those animals, Noonan added, could be brought back to life in the future.

The most likely first candidate for resurrection, however, died off 4,000 years ago, probably due to a combination of climate change and prehistoric human hunting. Woolly mammoths are likely to get cloned because scientists have excellent samples of their DNA preserved in permafrost, said Jeffrey Yule, a biologist at Louisiana Tech University and a conference attendee. Even the more recently extinct dodo can't compare, as preservation methods used by museums can wreck havoc on DNA.

While reliable cloning technology is far in the future, it's important to talk about the issue now, Yule said. "We should think about it now before the technology is perfected because if we think ahead about how we might use the technology, it might head us off from making mistakes," he said.

Just because people may be able to bring back extinct animals doesn't mean they should, Noonan and Yule agreed. For example, the conference attendees thought that if an animal's habitat no longer existed on Earth, they should not be revived only to have nowhere for them to live happily. Animals should not be brought back just as curiosities, Noonan said.

The conference attendees also spent time thinking about nearer-term changes to zoos in the future. Zoos are moving toward keeping animals that better fit their climate and size, Noonan said. That means no polar bears in Florida zoos and more space for elephants and giraffes.

They also talked about the increasing number of animals in the world, especially in Europe, that have become "semi-wild" because they live in small patches between human-inhabited areas. Noonan called Yellowstone Park bison semi-wild because they are accustomed to tourist cars.

In an era of wildlife documentaries in HD, zoos may seem quaint. But zoo attendance is strong, Noonan said, and they may have an important place in the future as the planet loses its wild land. "Imagine a world where nearly everyone lives in a city and they hardly ever see a living animal unless they go to a zoo," he said.

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