31 Jul 2013

Gone, But Not Forgotten

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Isabella Kirkland, Gone

Still weeping into your handkerchief over missing Carolina parakeets, Heath Hens, and Passenger pigeons? Studio 360 tells us that modern science is working on bringing extinct species back.

Bringing extinct animals back has usually been left to the world of science fiction. But a group of biologists is attempting it in the real world. The organization Revive & Restore, a project of the Long Now Foundation, held a day-long TEDx conference on de-extinction a few months ago at the National Geographic Society. This is not quack science; some of the research involves Harvard University, UC Santa Cruz, and Wake Forest University, among other institutions.

Painter Isabella Kirkland, who is also a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, opened the event with an image of her painting Gone. It looks like a Dutch master’s oil painting, depicting 63 extinct New World species arrayed on a table elegantly: the Carolina parakeet, the golden toad, and in the central place of honor, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died in 1914.

The passenger pigeon is the preoccupation of Revive & Restore’s Ben Novak, a genetic biologist. “It’s my job to bring the bird back to life.” Novak began thinking about resurrecting animals in junior high school, when he did a science fair project on the dodo bird. “It’s the icon of extinction — ‘dead as a dodo,’ as they say — and I learned that the dodo is actually a giant extinct pigeon. It gave me the pigeon bug.” The techniques are complicated and untried, but de-extinction is simple in concept: take DNA from a dead sample in a natural history museum somewhere, and plant it in the egg of a living relative — in this case, the band-tailed pigeon. If it works, the living bird will hatch an egg out of which will come the clone of a long-dead bird.

I would vote for bringing back Pleistocene megafauna, which would provide some excellent hunting trophies. Bringing back the Passenger pigeon seems like a bad idea to me. We already have plenty of Mourning Doves which fill the Passenger pigeon’s ecological niche pretty satisfactorily. Besides, it seems possible, speaking historically, that Passenger pigeons (and Carolina parakeets) were, at least in part, intentionally eradicated because they were voracious flock feeders on crops.

Hat tip to Daniela Imre.

One Feedback on "Gone, But Not Forgotten"


A Korean/Russian team is working on bringing back mammoths. Good! I’ve needed an excuse to buy a .416 Rigby.


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