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Extinct Zebra Sub-Species Revived With Selective Breeding

Feb 14, 2016 03:02 PM EST
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Scientists recently revived a South African sub-species of zebra known as the quagga. This odd-looking zebra lacking stripes on its hind legs has been extinct for more than 100 years. 

The last known quagga died in a zoo in Amsterdam in 1883. Inspired to resurrect the species, Reinhold Rau from the University of Cape Town founded The Quagga Project in 1987.

When analyzing DNA from original quagga skin, researchers found the extinct creature was genetically the same as the zebra. This means that the only true difference between the quagga and modern plains zebra (Equus Quagga) is their superficial markings. 

In addition to the lack of black and white stripes on its hindquarters, the quaggas' coat turns to a darker brown color towards the back part of its body.

So Rau and his team looked for plains zebra that fit the profile -- less vivid black and white stripes on their hindquarters. Then, they selectively bred zebras to bring forth more and more quagga-like qualities.

"It's an attempt to try and repair ecological damage that was done a long time ago in some sort of small way," Eric Harley, a retired professor of chemical pathology at the University of Cape Town, said in a statement. "It is also to try and get a representation back of a charismatic animal that used to live in South Africa."

After several years of rebreeding the species, researchers claim that the quagga are back in action. It took five generations, but the selectively bred animals boast all the same traits as the quaggas once did. 

"To all intents and purposes they are the quagga back again. The project has been a complete success," Harley added. 

Quaggas were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. Therefore The Quagga Project was an attempt to right wrongs and return a native South African species to the world after it was wrongly killed. 

In response to ethical concerns raised, Harley said:  "We don't do genetic engineering, we aren't cloning, we aren't doing any particularly clever sort of embryo transfers-it is a very simple project of selective breeding." 

To appease critics, the team has decided to name the new animal Rau-quagga to set it apart from its predecessors. The hope is to keep the project running and to create a substantial herd of Rau-quagga to be released in their native homeland of South Africa. 

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