US firm behind Tasmanian tiger ‘de-extinction’ plan uses influencers to promote research

US firm behind Tasmanian tiger ‘de-extinction’ plan uses influencers to promote research

US firm behind Tasmanian tiger ‘de-extinction’ plan uses influencers to promote research

The US firm behind the effort to revive the Tasmanian tiger has taken the unusual step of engaging social media influencers to promote its research.

The announcement last week that Australian and American scientists had launched a multimillion-dollar project to bring back the thylacine received widespread coverage.

The resurrection effort is a collaboration between Colossal Biosciences, a Texas-based biotechnology company specializing in de-extinction, and researchers at the University of Melbourne.

The ambitious project, which has received a mixed response from the scientific community, seeks to reintroduce the carnivorous marsupial to its native Tasmania, where it became extinct in the 1930s.

Several influencers have produced promotional content for Colossal on Instagram and TikTok, using the hashtag #ColossalPartner.

Among them are Kendall Long in the US, a self-described “curiosity lover” and science enthusiast and former contestant on The Bachelor; and Laura Wells, an Australian presenter.

Related: Reviving the Tasmanian tiger may be a noble idea – but what about conserving existing species? | Adam Morton

Nick Uhas, an American TV host with more than 7 million followers on TikTok, has previously promoted his company’s plan to revive the woolly mammoth and reintroduce the animal to the Arctic tundra.

Professor Kristofer Helgen, the Australian Museum’s chief scientist, said he was aware influencers were promoting the eradication project via Twitter and other online platforms.

Helgen is convinced, based on the thylacine’s molecular biology, that the de-extinction project is not feasible. “I do not think it is possible to reproduce a thylacine in the manner described. I feel very strongly that the underlying science is not there, he said.

“Some caution is warranted. You want some peer review and some expertise involved in scrutinizing what kind of story is being told about what the scientists are planning to do,” Helgen said.

“Instead … we’re seeing a very different corporate approach, asking social influencers — who may not know too much about marsupial biology, for example, but have large followings or science-oriented followings — to pump out media that’s positive,” he said . “This company stands to make money from the publicity.”

Dr Belinda Barnet, Senior Lecturer in Media at Swinburne University, said: “Although many brands now use influencers, mainly because they are effective in gaining attention and media coverage, this is not common practice in research.

“A research project is not meant to be a brand. You are not trying to sell anything. So the fact that this has happened should tell us something about research culture, and about how competitive funding has become, she said.

“I can see why Colossal Biosciences might try it; perhaps a media profile will attract more investment.”

Among Colossal’s investors are the Hemsworth brothers, Paris Hilton, the management firm founded by the Winklevoss twins, and Thomas Tull, the former CEO of Legendary Entertainment.

Paying influencers to promote science is unusual, but not unheard of. Last year, the UK Institute of Physics spent “tens of thousands of pounds” on a social media campaign on TikTok.

Five TikTokers were paid to stand on cartons of eggs without breaking them, with the aim of “reaching more young people with positive messages about physics”, IOP’s Ray Mitchell told Nature in March.

Colossal Biosciences was contacted for comment. Prof Andrew Pask of the University of Melbourne, whose laboratory is collaborating on the thylacine project, was unavailable for comment.

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