Tag Archives: de-extinction

“Extinct” elms discovered doing just fine in the Queen’s gardens, Edinburgh

Two elms of a species presumed to be extinct in Great Britain have been discovered in the Queen’s Edinburgh gardens in Scotland.

Image credits Lubomir Mihalik / Pixabay.

In the 1970s, Britain was being ravaged by the Dutch elm disease — an epidemic which claimed between 25 to 75 million trees. Yes, tree epidemics are a thing, and they’re really bad news for us and the species that rely on those trees for food and board. Ulmus Wentworthii Pendula, or the Wentworth elm, was tragically wiped out of the island nation by the affliction.

Or, so we thought. Two Wentworth elms were (unknowingly) found (several thousand times) hiding in plain sight in Edinburgh, adorning the Queen’s gardens. While it took a botanical survey of the grounds surrounding the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the royal residence in Scotland, to identify their species, the trees are by no means inconspicuous. Standing some 30 meters (100 feet) tall, the elms are one of the most photographed trees in the gardens — it’s just that no one ever noticed they’re “extinct” before.

“Such a discovery when the trees in question are just shy of 100 feet [30 metres] and in plain sight does sound rather odd,” said Max Coleman from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE).

He thinks they went unnoticed for so long because Wentworth elms were never very common to begin with.

“If you pull your tree book off the shelf to try and look them up, you won’t find Wentworth elm listed in the books,” he explained for the BBC.

Wentworth elms have a distinctive “weeping” habit and glossy, almost waxy, sparsely-haired upper leaf surface.
Image credits Max Coleman / Wikimedia.

Most likely, the elms were taken from the city’s botanical gardens sometime in the last century. The RBGE records show that the trees arrived there in 1902 from Germany, but after that, they only mention one tree in the gardens which fell to the disease in 1996.

“It is very tempting to speculate that the Wentworth elms at the Palace are the two missing trees from RBGE. There is anecdotal evidence that the young trees could have come in to RBGE then been grown-on before planting-out in their final positions,” said Coleman.

“Certainly, there was a close relationship between the Palace and the Garden in the early 20th century and the head gardener at Holyrood, William Smith, had trained here. And, although we have no record here of elms going out, we know that a large number of ivy plants went from here to Holyrood to plant round the abbey ruins.”

For now, though, the origins of these two surviving Wentworth elms remains mysterious. It’s a very fortunate find, however, and experts are now considering how best to restore the species starting from these two individuals. Part of that job is to figure out what helped them survive the disease that wiped out the rest of their species.

“It is very likely the only reason these rare elms have survived is because Edinburgh City Council has been surveying and removing diseased elms since the 1980s,” Coleman added. “Without that work many more of the thousands of elms in Edinburgh would have been lost. The success of this program may be partly demonstrated in the way two rare trees have been preserved.”

Now, the elms will have to start working hard at making baby elms. Hopefully, they’ll live up to the task with as much gusto as Diego the tortoise.

Scientists want to ‘de-extinct’ 22 species, including the wooly mammoth, the Dodo bird and the tasmanian tiger

So far… it’s re-extinction


Almost 10 years ago, on July 30, 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists reversed time. They brought an animal back from extinction, if only just to see it go extinct again. The animal they revived was a kind of wild goat known as a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex. For tens of thousands of years, the animal thrived in the Pyrenees, the mountain range that divides France from Spain, where it clambered along cliffs, eating whatever plants and roots it could, enduring harsh winter after harsh winter. Then the humans came – with their guns. Hunting season after hunting season, their numbers dwindled down, and in 1989, just 12 individuals remained. 10 years from that, a single female was left, and not long afterwards, the bucardos became officially extinct.

Over the next few years a team of reproductive physiologists led by José Folch injected nuclei from those cells into goat eggs emptied of their own DNA, then implanted the eggs in surrogate mothers. From the 57 implantations, only 7 animals became pregnant. Out of those 7 pregnancies, 6 ended in miscarriage; one of them however, was brought to term – but only for 10 minutes. A huge lobe in its lung prevented it from actually breathing; there was nothing anyone could do, and the bucardos became extinct – once more.

The idea of bringing back species through cloning has hovered on the border of reality and science fiction for a few decades now, but are we really at that time when we actually bring them back?

“We are at that moment,” sayd Fernández-Arias, now the head of the government of Aragon’s Hunting, Fishing and Wetlands department.


The term is definitely lacking, but for the lack of a better one, we’ll keep using it. At a TEDx conference in Washington DC sponsored by National Geographic, scientists met to discuss which animals should be brought back from extinction. They discussed the why, the how, and perhaps most important, the ethics behind this kind of project.

The thing is, the list of recently-gone extinct animals (because of human activity) is really large (7 animals recently gone extinct), so even if all the scientific methods are available, we have to choose wisely where we have to invest time and resources. Are the species practical choices – do they provide any advantage to the environment? Do they hold an important ecological function, or are they beloved by humans? It’s a pretty tricky area, especially considering how the environment has changed.

In fact, this is a very puzzling issue; even if we say, manage to bring back a species, its environment would be different; the ecological niche it once filled is almost certainly gone by now. Migration patterns have changed, food sources have changed, temperatures have changed, and in a way, even if it is a perfect physical clone, the species will not be the same.