Do you know what a quagga is? It is a good answer to the trivia question, “Name an animal that begins with the letter Q.” It is also sometimes used as a classic example of an animal driven to extinction by humans, alongside creatures like the great auk, the dodo, Steller’s sea cow, and the Barbary lion.
The quagga is an extinct subspecies of zebra. It looked a bit like a cross between a zebra and a horse: the head, neck, and sometimes the back of the animal was striped like a zebra but the back and hindquarters was a solid brown color. Initially, the quagga was classified as its own species, Equus quagga. Equus is the genus name of the various horses, donkeys, and zebras alive today: every living species of horse belongs to the genus Equus. Considering zebras specifically, there are three species: Equus grevy (Grevy’s zebra), Equus zebra (the mountain zebra), and what used to be called Equus burchelli (the plains zebra). As already mentioned, the quagga used to be considered a fourth species of zebra. However, genetic testing of the mitochondrial genome have since determined that the plains zebra and the quagga actually belong to the same species. Since Equus quagga was the name given first, both the quagga and the plains zebra are classified as Equus quagga, and the quagga itself is classified as the subspecies Equus quagga quagga, to distinguish it from other plains zebras.i
The fact that the quagga is a subspecies of the plains zebra has led to the development of the Quagga Project. The Quagga Project began in 1986, when a committee of zoologists, veterinarians, and museum specialists met in South Africa, the original homeland of the quagga, to discuss bringing back the quagga from extinction. How? It was reasoned that, since the quagga is a subspecies of the plains zebra, then genes that make a quagga unique may be present in existing plains zebra populations. It was also noted that plains zebras show a wide variation in coat patterns, including some that had reduced amount of stripes on the body, as well as some with a brown coloration. In 1987, 19 plains zebras were collected for their favorable traits, and used to create a breeding herd. The favorable traits included reduced stripes on the hindquarters and hind legs and a darker background coat color. This herd was put in captivity and allowed to breed. The resulting offspring were monitored. Offspring that had too many stripes were removed from the herd while those that had further reduction of stripes were allowed to remain in the herd. After twenty years and three generations, the Quagga Project produced zebras that closely resemble the extinct quagga.ii
The ultimate goal of the Quagga project is to re-breed quaggas and reintroduce them into reserves in places where quaggas used to live.iii Indeed, this objective has already been achieved, at least in part. The Bantebok Ridge Reserve, located in Wellington, South Africa, advertises on its website that guests to the reserve will have the opportunity to see a variety of game animals, including the revived quagga.iv
There is some skepticism whether the zebras produced by the Quagga Project can actually be called quaggas. The argument goes that while the zebras may look like quaggas, we do not know for sure that they have the same genes as the extinct quagga. Those involved with the Quagga Project readily acknowledge this problem, but they also point out that the only distinguishing traits we know about the extinct quagga are all in its coat pattern. Perhaps there were other traits that distinguished quaggas from other plains zebras, but we simply do not know what they were. Thus, the only thing we can use to identify a quagga is its unique coat pattern, and it is argued that such coat patterns have been achieved by the Quagga Project.v Nevertheless, to distinguish them from the quaggas of the past, the modern quaggas are sometimes called Rau quaggas. The name comes from Reinhold Rau, one of the founders of the Quagga Project.vi
I find the Quagga Project fascinating. While it is true that we do not know if the Rau quaggas are truly the same as the quaggas of the past, I agree with the argument that all we have to distinguish quaggas from other zebras are their unique coloration. Using that as a measure for what a quagga is, humans have successfully brought an animal back from extinction. It didn’t require any Jurassic Park type of cloning or genetic reconstructions. All it took was a selective breeding program, beginning with zebras that already had coat patterns that were close to a quagga’s, and breeding them, removing any unwanted offspring in the process, until an appropriate quagga coloration was achieved. Such breeding is a fairly “low tech” genetic engineering, but since such breeding does select for specific traits, and those traits are coded for by genes, the genetic make-up of the zebras were changed to make them Rau quaggas.
I believe that the breeding of the Rau quagga is an excellent example of what it means for animals to belong to a single kind and what speciation within that kinds looks like. Did the people involved in the Quagga Project put any new genes into their zebras? No, they simply selected from genes that were already there. Thus, the genetics for the Rau quaggas was embedded in the existing populations of the plains zebra. Those existing genes just had to be concentrated into a select population. In the case of the Quagga Project, the selection was artificial. Those zebras with too many stripes in the wrong places were deliberately removed from the herd, to remove those unwanted genes from the population. However, natural selection works in the very same way, except that it is some natural process that removes the “unwanted” genes from the population. For example, the quagga coat pattern may have helped the quaggas survive better in their original habitats. When the horse kind came off of the Ark and began spreading through the new post-Flood world, those zebras in the population that lacked the proper pattern failed to survive (they died), leaving behind a population that had a concentration of the genes needed to produce the distinctive quagga coloration. Of course, that only happened in those places of the world where the quagga coloration worked best: in other places of the world, the more familiar striped pattern of a zebra was better for survival, so the quagga genes were selected against. This scenario is entirely hypothetical. My point is simply to illustrate that what humans did artificially with the Quagga Project is the same thing, in principle, that happened in the natural world back when the original quaggas first arose from the horse kind after Noah’s Flood.
Furthermore, the Quagga project shows how quickly such selection can work. It took just three generations and a little over 20 years before the first Rau quaggas began to appear. While twenty years is a long time for one person to wait, it is actually a short period of time when we consider the 4,500 years that have passed since the Flood. That illustrates how quickly the animals kinds may have divided into different species after leaving the Ark. As these kinds migrated out into the world and settled down in different locations, the specific traits that allowed them to best survive in those diverse locations would have quickly divided a single kind into multiple species. Considering that the Ice Age likely took 500 years to reach its maximum extent,vii there would have been ample time for several species to have arisen before the Ice Age was in full effect. The Ice Age itself would have put all kinds of new selective pressures on the animals, forcing speciation all over again.
Not only is the Quaggo Project a fascinating and successful attempt to re-create an extinct variety, it also provides a look into the variation God built into the kinds of animals that he created. We humans, attempting to undo an extinction caused by humans, simply took the existing variation that God created and manipulated it to bring the quaggas back from extinction.
Thoughts from Steven
iEric Harley, Michael Knight, Craig Lardner, Bernard Wooding, and Michael Gregor (2009) “The Quagga project: progress over 20 years of selective breeding” South African Journal of Wildlife Research 39(2): 155-163
vEric Harley, Michael Knight, Craig Lardner, Bernard Wooding, and Michael Gregor (2009) “The Quagga project: progress over 20 years of selective breeding” South African Journal of Wildlife Research 39(2): 155-163
viiMichael Oard (1990) An Ice Age Caused by the Genesis Flood, Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, California, pg. 190