The Quagga

The quagga was a subspecies of zebra found only in South Africa’s Western Cape region. After the Dutch invaded, they hunted the quagga to extinction. While some were taken to zoos in Europe, breeding programs failed. The last wild quagga died in 1878, and the very last quagga died in an Amsterdam zoo in 1883.

Only one was ever photographed—the mare shown above, in London. Only 23 stuffed and mounted quagga specimens exist. There was one more, but it was destroyed in Königsberg, Germany, during World War II. There is also a mounted head and neck, a foot, 7 complete skeletons, and samples of various tissues.

The quagga was the first extinct animal to have its DNA analyzed. It used to be thought that the quagga was a distinct species from the zebra. After some argument, a genetic study published in 2005 convinced most people that the quagga is a subspecies of the zebra. It showed that the quagga diverged from the other zebra subspecies only between 120,000 and 290,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene.

In 1987, a natural historian named Reinhold Rau started the Quagga Project. He was goal was to breed zebras into quaggas by selecting for quagga-like traits, most notably the lack of stripes on the back half of its body.

The founding population consisted of 19 zebras from Namibia and South Africa, chosen because they had reduced striping on the rear body and legs. The first foal was born in 1988.

By now, members of the Quagga Project believe they have recreated the quagga. Here they are:

Rau-quagga (zebra subspecies)

The new quaggas are called ‘rau–quaggas’ to distinguish them from the original ones. Do they look the same as the originals? It’s hard for me to decide. Old paintings show quite a bit of variability:

This is an 1804 illustration by Samuel Daniell, which served as the basis of a claimed subspecies of quagga, Equus quagga danielli. Perhaps they just have variable coloring.

Why try to resurrect the quagga? Rau is no longer alive, but Eric Harley, a retired professor of chemical pathology at the University of Cape Town, had this to say:

It’s an attempt to try and repair ecological damage that was done a long time ago in some sort of small way. It is also to try and get a representation back of a charismatic animal that used to live in South Africa.

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. If it had been a different species the whole project would have been unjustifiable.

The current Quagga Project chairman, Mike Gregor, has this to say:

I think there is controversy with all programmes like this. There is no way that all scientists are going to agree that this is the right way to go. We are a bunch of enthusiastic people trying to do something to replace something that we messed up many years ago.

What we’re not doing is selecting some fancy funny colour variety of zebra, as is taking place in other areas, where funny mutations have taken place with strange colouring which may look amusing but is rather frowned upon in conservation circles.

What we are trying to do is get sufficient animals—ideally get a herd of up to 50 full-blown rau-quaggas in one locality, breeding together, and then we would have a herd we could say at the very least represents the original quagga.

We obviously want to keep them separate from other populations of plains zebra otherwise we simply mix them up again and lose the characteristic appearance.

The quotes are from here:

• Lawrence Bartlett, South Africa revives ‘extinct’ zebra subspecies,, 12 February 2016.

This project is an example of ‘resurrection biology’, or ‘de-extinction’:

• Wikipedia, De-extinction.

Needless to say, it’s a controversial idea.

9 Responses to The Quagga

  1. This is an entirely laudable project and its proponents are to congratulated. They deserve the world’s thanks.

    It’s a pity we don’t put more resources into maintaining the diminishing levels of biodiversity.

    My own project is an attempt to establish an insurance population of Red Jungle Fowl, Gallus gallus murghi in Tasmania.

    • Simplicio says:

      Is the quagga project preserving genetic diversity? I’d think breeding zebras for particular traits would leave most measures of genetic diversity unchanged.

    • John Baez says:

      Different measures of diversity say different things about whether genetic diversity is increased when previously rare combinations of genes are made more common.

      One can imagine a project where the original quagga ecosystem was restored. This could be interesting even if genetic diversity hasn’t been increased much. According to Wikipedia:

      Introduction of these quagga-like zebras could be part of a comprehensive restoration program including such ongoing efforts as eradication of non-native trees. Quaggas, wildebeest, and ostriches, which occurred together during historical times in a mutually beneficial association, could be kept together in areas where the indigenous vegetation has to be maintained by grazing. In early 2006, the third and fourth generation animals produced by the project were considered looking much like the depictions and preserved specimens of the quagga. This type of selective breeding is called breeding back. The practice is controversial, since the resulting zebras will resemble the quaggas only in external appearance, but will be genetically different. The technology to use recovered DNA for cloning does not exist yet.

      Unfortunately, I haven’t heard that the Quagga Project has any intention of setting up a reconstruction of the quagga’s original ecosystem.

      In 1840, Major Sir William Cornwallis Harris wrote:

      it occurs in interminable herds; and, although never intermixing with its more elegant congeners, it is almost invariably to be found ranging with the white-tailed gnu and with the ostrich, for the society of which bird especially it evinces the most singular predilection.

      I’m guessing that a “white-tailed gnu” is a wildebeest.

  2. What we’re not doing is selecting some fancy funny colour variety of zebra, as is taking place in other areas

    Where can I see these?

  3. domenico says:

    These are good research fields.
    There are many species in danger of extinction, and it is possible the dna conservation for the future (software and biological); so that these experiments will permit (in the future) to create the extinct species, or plants (seeds or dna databases).
    Sometimes there are microorganisms causing extinction, or environmental condition, or wars, so that a de-extinction could be possible in future: we don’t know what will be useful in the future.

  4. JDS Purohit says:

    The zebroids look totally unreal.

  5. Jamie Vicary says:

    They say “What we’re not doing is selecting some fancy funny colour variety of zebra”. But it seems to me that’s exactly what they’re doing, right? After all, they started by choosing “19 zebras from Namibia and South Africa, chosen because they had reduced striping on the rear body and legs” — i.e., choosing funny colour varieties of zebra.

  6. domenico says:

    I am thinking that there are many research in biotechnology to sequence the genome of plants, for example rice (Syngenta), grapevine (Myriad genetic et al.), wheat (International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium), and so on.

    The problem is that there is not a single global database (like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault) of the genome, on almost eternal support (like quartz glass nanotechnology): I am thinking that all the sequences could be stored by Food and Agricolture Organization in an open access database in Svalbard (and in a backup duplicate in another continent), so that each researcher in the world could make de-exintion of plants (to avoid problems like for the wheat, and other plants, in international center of gene plant in Aleppo).

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