The Pyrenean Ibex

This Ibex Was the First to Undergo De-Extinction

Pyrenean Ibex

Joseph Wolf/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The recently extinct Pyrenean ibex, also known by the Spanish common name bucardo, was one of the four subspecies of wild goat to inhabit the Iberian Peninsula. The other species include the Western Spanish (or Gredos) ibex and Southeastern Spanish (or Beceite) ibex — which are both currently living — and the extinct Portuguese ibex. An attempt to clone the Pyrenean ibex was carried out in 2009, marking it the first species to undergo de-extinction, but the clone died due to physical defects in its lungs seven minutes after its birth. 

Characteristics of the Pyrenean ibex

Appearance: The Pyrenean ibex had grayish-brown fur that grows thicker in colder winter months. Males had striking black coloring on their legs, neck, and face and thick, curving horns with ridges that deepened with age. Females ibex's horns were much shorter and thinner.

Size: Ranging in height from 24 to 30 inches at the shoulder and weighing 55 to 76 pounds, the Pyrenean was quite similar in size to other goat subspecies sharing the Iberian Peninsula. 

Habitat: The agile Pyrenean ibex inhabited rocky mountainsides and cliffs interspersed with scrub vegetation and small pines.

Diet: Vegetation such as herbs, forbs, and grasses comprised most of the ibex's diet.

Habits: Seasonal migrations between high and low elevations allowed the ibex to utilize high mountain slopes in the summer and more temperate valleys during the winter with thickening fur supplementing warmth during the coldest months.

Reproduction: The ibex birthing season generally occurred during May when females would seek isolated locations to bear offspring. The most common number of young was one, but twins were born occasionally.

Geographic Range: Pyrenean ibex inhabited the Iberian Peninsula and were most commonly found in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain, the Pyrenees Mountains, and in southern France.

The Extinction of the Pyrenean Ibex

While the exact cause of the Pyrenean ibex's extinction is unknown, scientists hypothesize that some different factors contributed to the decline of the species, including poaching, disease, and the inability to compete with other domestic and wild ungulates for food and habitat.

The ibex are thought to have numbered some 50,000 historically, but by the early 1900s, their numbers had fallen to fewer than 100. The last naturally born Pyrenean ibex, a 13-year-old female that scientists named Celia, was found mortally wounded in northern Spain on January 6, 2000, having been trapped beneath a fallen tree.

The First De-Extinction in History

Before Celia died, though, scientists were able to collect skin cells from her ear and preserve them in liquid nitrogen. Using those cells, researchers attempted to clone the ibex in 2009. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to implant a cloned embryo in a living domestic goat, one embryo survived and was carried to term and born. This event marked the first de-extinction in scientific history. However, the newborn clone died just seven minutes after its birth as a result of physical defects in its lung.

Professor Robert Miller, director of the Medical Research Council's Reproductive Sciences Unit at Edinburgh University, commented:

"I think this is an exciting advance as it does show the potential of being able to regenerate extinct species. There is some way to go before it can be used effectively, but the advances in this field are such that we will see more and more solutions to the problems faced."

How You Can Help De-Extinction Efforts

The Revive and Restore Initiative of the Long Now Foundation is blazing a trail toward de-extinction. The Foundation's first project to revive an extinct animal using museum-specimen DNA involves the passenger pigeon. "The passenger pigeon was selected for its iconic status and its relative practicality," explains the Foundation's website. "Its DNA has already been sequenced. Some of its fans among scientists have the technical capability to begin the miracle of resurrection. The work will proceed by stages over the coming months."

You can help support the Revive and Restore mission and further the science of de-extinction by donating to the Long Now Foundation.