When the last surviving passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1914, her body packed on ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, no one could have imagined scientists would one day try to bring the species back to life.
But that is happening in a laboratory in California, and Rochester Museum & Science Center is playing a role. A team of scientists at the University of California Santa Cruz is using old bones from RMSC and other institutions to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction.
The project, one of several in the emerging field of de-extinction, is called the Great Passenger Pigeon
Comeback. It is part of Revive & Restore, a genetic rescue project for endangered and extinct species through the Long Now Foundation, a non-profit that encourages long-term thinking. Long Now co-founder and president Stewart Brand was the creative force behind the Whole Earth catalog, a counterculture magazine and do-it-yourself product guide of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The passenger pigeon project could run upwards of $30 million over the next several decades.
The work is being conducted in the lab of evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro at UC Santa Cruz. Scientists led by research consultant Ben Novak of Revive & Restore are using new genetic engineering techniques to take the closely related band-tailed pigeon and rewrite the genome to express passenger pigeon traits. They hope to reintroduce the bird and restore its contribution to the ecosystem. The goal is to have de-extinct passenger pigeons by 2022 and to begin wild releases by 2032.
Genomic work so far has been conducted largely by two workers and advised and analyzed by three more researchers. Many others have been involved along the way, from lab technicians to students to outsourced sequencing labs.
“It’s quite remarkable how far and how fast we’ve come in the whole sequencing of DNA,” said George McIntosh, director of collections at RMSC. “What sounded like science fiction in 1950 is common today.”
RMSC has one of the largest collections of passenger pigeons. The museum supplied bones from a collection containing more than 25 study skins and mounts as well as numerous skeletal remains. RMSC’s collection is comparable in size to those in the Smithsonian and the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. Other usable passenger pigeon samples came from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Field Museum, Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the collection of Gregory Sohrweide, a dentist in Baldwinsville, Onondaga County.
RMSC and many other museums noted the centennial of the bird’s extinction with exhibits in 2014. The local exhibit remains open and is meant to address the stewardship responsibility humans have, McIntosh said.
“It’s this whole ethic of how humans have influenced the environment and … and to let people know that the most common thing in the world can be driven to extinction by mindlessly eliminating it,” he said.
Hunted heavily, passenger pigeons were estimated to number in the billions in the mid-1800s before finally dwindling to one—Martha, who died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914. Her remains can be viewed at the Smithsonian.
“There were billions,” McIntosh said. “It was the most common bird on the surface of the Earth in the middle 1800s. … That was probably the most common species for a vertebrate.”
The Rochester materials are old, some dating back 4,000 years. McIntosh credits former RMSC director Arthur Parker, who was an archeologist, with the foresight to preserve species samples.
“I think he realized this is something we need to preserve,” he said. “I would lay it right at the feet of Arthur Parker.”
Researchers are using the RMSC samples as anchors in establishing a time series. By analyzing DNA over a longer timeline, scientists can start answering questions about the bird’s role in the environment.
“The neat thing about DNA sequencing is you can start comparing populations over time,” McIntosh said.
The bird had a pink breast and throat and a blue-gray head and wings. It closely resembled mourning doves, though it was larger. They traveled in flocks several hundred million strong up and down North America east of the Rocky Mountains. In one written account, a flock darkened the sky a mile across and 300 miles long and took 14 hours to pass overhead.
Passenger pigeons left destruction in their wake, decimating forest trees and plants and covering the ground with excrement an inch thick. Unlike other bird species, they did not return to roost in the same place year after year, Novak said. Typically they spent six to eight weeks in a given location, then moved on.
For two years, Novak and his team have been studying the bird’s role in the environment and how, given its numbers, it became extinct.
Cost in the millions
While it is difficult to sum up the project’s cost—there is overlap with the lab’s other efforts—costs to date have not exceeded $80,000 a year, coming mostly from donations, Novak said. Over the next 25 years, the cost may reach $30 million, with the next five years requiring at least $1.5 million.
Novak has been asked why he wants to bring such an ill-mannered bird back from the dead, he said.
“I fell in love with passenger pigeons because of the grand stories about how many there were, and their extinction is very emotionally compelling,” Novak said. “And later … I felt there really is something to these birds worth studying. And that destruction they do is really why we want them back.”
Over the last century, forests have been growing back as humans actively suppress disturbances, such as fires, Novak said. While to most that sounds like a good thing, scientists who study forest ecosystems say something is missing. Forests need disturbances to renew their animal and plant habitats; the guano sinks into the soil and provides rich fertilizer. Sunlight streams through where branches have been stripped away, making way for new insects and a new understory of plants.
Novak said efforts to reintroduce extinct species—the woolly mammoth and the heath hen are also in the works—requires the same long view that urges controlled burns in vast forests.
“It’s the exact same thing that happens after a fire. That’s really what the birds were doing. When you analyze what type of species live in forests, the vast majority use regenerating forests for some point in their life cycle, whether to breed or to raise young or to forage. Tons of birds, tons of mammals all are adapted to using and taking advantage of these regenerating environments.”
“Dozens of species in the forest are declining or threatened because forests don’t go through any kind of regenerative cycle,” he added. The New England cottontail, which requires the thick undergrowth of a young forest for its entire life cycle, is a candidate for the federal endangered species list.
Novak said de-extinction research could mean that 100 to 200 years from now the passenger pigeon would fly in healthy numbers again, though not necessarily the 3 billion to 5 billion they once numbered. That would mean greater biodiversity and adaptability for species of all kinds, since they are constantly on the move.
“If we can get to one or two big flocks, then that’s less work for forestry managers,” he said.
De-extinction has fierce detractors, including Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke professor of conservation at Duke University and a leading expert in present-day extinctions. He calls de-extinction “a side show.”
“I mean that in a variety of different ways,” Pimm said. “It’s a gimmick; it’s a way that people can draw attention to themselves. And it’s not dealing with the many, many practical and sensitive things we can do to protect species from going extinct.”
Scientists who focus on bringing species back from extinction and near extinction in captivity are missing the point, he said.
“(Proponents of de-extinction say) it’s OK for species to go extinct because we are going to bring them back,” Pimm said. “It means we are not going to take care of the species and the ecosystems on which they depend. … It creates the moral hazard that we will not look after the planet. It’s not a viable pattern.”
“It’s a very, very narrow view,” he added. “The people who talk about this talk about the DNA and the molecular techniques. And they’re not answering the most basic ecological questions.”
Pimm is president of Saving Species, a conservation non-profit. The organization helps local conservation groups in areas with large numbers of threatened species buy degraded land and restore it. It addresses a crucial aspect of species on the verge of extinction: fragmented habitat.
“We know from a lot of good science and basically common sense that species become extinct in small patches,” he said. “We empower local organizations to buy up land between remaining forest (patches) and reconnect pieces.”
Traditional conservation efforts of the last 40 years are not equipped to address today’s big threats, Novak said: pollution’s legacy damage, growing global mobility, climate change and invasive species.
“(Conservationists) have been trying for years without much success. So, we’re hoping that these types of engineering projects, riding on the back of medical science and agricultural sciences, will offer solutions,” he said.
“That’s really what the ultimate legacy is: a completely new way of thinking of conservation and then getting a new generation of conservation active and going.”
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