Zebra cousin went extinct 100 years ago. Now, it's back

January 30, 2016, 6:46am

By Thomas Page and Colin Hancock, CNN  
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

(CNN) Never heard of the quagga? You're not alone. The animal, a relative of the zebra, went extinct over 100 years ago. Now, a group of scientists outside of Cape Town are bringing it back.

Like zebras, the quagga has stripes, though these only appear on the front half of their bodies. Unlike the zebra, they are brown along the rear half of their body. These animals used to roam South Africa in vast herds, but European settlers fixed the beasts in their sights, killing them at an alarming rate. By the 1880s, the last known example had died. Now, however, scientists have bred an animal that looks strikingly similar with the help of DNA and selective breeding.

Reverse engineering

A group called the Quagga Project has worked to resurrect the little-known species. According to Eric Harley, the project's leader and a professor at Cape Town University, the key was hidden in the animal's genetics. Testing remaining quagga skins revealed the animal was in fact a sub-species of the plains zebra.

Harley hypothesized that the genes which characterized the quagga would still be present in the zebra, and could manifest through selective breeding. With each new group of foals, the distinct colorings have become stronger and more defined.

"The progress of the project has in fact followed that prediction. And in fact we have over the course of 4, 5 generations seen a progressive reduction in striping, and lately an increase in the brown background color showing that our original idea was in fact correct," says Harley.

A zebra can change its stripes

The project has not been without its critics. Some have called the project a stunt, saying all that's been created is a different looking zebra, without taking into account the ecological adaptations or behavior differences in the original quagga.

"There are a lot of detractors who are saying you can't possibly put back the same as what was here," says fellow project leader Mike Gregor.

These animals "might not be genetically the same," adds Gregor, who admits that "there might have been other genetic characteristics [and] adaptations that we haven't taken into account."

Accordingly, these creatures are named "Rau quaggas," after Reinhold Rau, one of the project's originators. Only six of the 100 animals on the reserve currently hold this title, but when the number reaches 50 there are plans for the herd to live together in one reserve.

"What we're saying is you can try and do something or you could just not," argues Gregor. "And I think us trying to do, trying to remedy something, is better than doing nothing at all."

"If we can retrieve the animals or retrieve at least the appearance of the quagga," Harley suggests, "then we can say we've righted a wrong."