Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lazarus birds?

range map for passenger pigeons

I have long thought that if a genie popped out of a bottle and gave me a wish, I'd ask for the return of the passenger pigeon. These birds, once so numerous that they darkened the sky as they flew overhead, were killed by the millions, until the last one, a female named Martha, died in captivity a century ago. For some reason, more than any other extinct species, I take the demise of the pigeon personally. I miss them.

Well, someone might say, don't just sit around crying about them. Why don't you do something about it? Believe it or not, there's a group of scientists that actually is trying to do just that....

There's a new field of biologists working towards "de-extinction," and The Long Now Foundation has brought many of them together for a fascinating series of talks. No matter what your reaction to this idea is, I recommend going to the site and watching a few; it really is interesting stuff.

I'm not going to try to recap the discussions--the speakers themselves do that better than I could--but instead to summarize my reactions to the idea that, within the next decade or two, we might have passenger pigeons in the world again.

My first thought is: hooray! Just imagine if this actually worked, and future generations of birders could go out and put ivory-billed woodpeckers, Bachman's warblers, heath hens and Eskimo curlews on their life lists. What if we really could begin to reverse the long toll of extinct species, and start bringing them back? Quite frankly, I think that would be the most amazing thing ever achieved by science.

But then there are a few issues, the most important being the question of habitat. I don't see the point of pursuing this sort of thing if the animals can't be released into the wild at some point. There are already too many species that exist only in captivity -- the Hawaiian crow, the Micronesian kingfisher and the Spix's macaw, just off the top of my head. These are species that we don't need to "de-extinct," as they are still here, but they can no longer survive in the wild, due to habitat loss and disease (the crow), their home being overrun by invasive snakes (the kingfisher) and habitat loss and illegal capture for the pet trade (the macaw).

If I were in charge of allocating funds around the world, I would say, "This de-extinction thing is a great idea, but first we need to take care of the species we still have, so come back and talk to me when we've got viable populations of all these creatures back in the wild."

In today's selfish economic climate, it's hard enough to get funds for conservation projects. Grassland bird species in Illinois have actually been increasing, due to government programs to pay land owners to leave them some breeding habitat. These programs are all being slashed now.

Another potential problem is that the concept of "de-extinction" will be an excuse for governments to stop protecting endangered species. "Who cares if they all die, we can always bring them back later." I can easily see certain segments of our government/population cynically jumping on that bandwagon.

There are also ethical issues. This sort of research is still at a very rough stage, and many animals will die before they are successful. And I hate to say it, but so far, we humans don't have the best track record at how we put our discoveries to use. From atomic energy to GMO crops, ideas that could have been a boon are often used destructively, and once the genie's out of the bottle, it's out. So now we get to worry about North Korea or Iran tossing nuclear missiles around, and about the loss of genetic diversity and farmers going bankrupt because of our "friends" at Monsanto.

For many people, there's a very deep-seated fear of this sort of tinkering. From movies like Jurassic Park to Mimic to Alien Resurrection -- does it ever turn out well?

"No, it doesn't."

Finally, is it even possible to bring back an extinct species, really? Take the passenger pigeon, for example. We don't have the technology to just bring them back in a test tube; their genetic material will be mixed with very similar species (the band-tailed pigeon) to create an almost passenger pigeon.

And then, the scientists are hoping that their unique pigeon-ness is genetically encoded, as opposed to learned behavior, since obviously there are no passenger pigeons to raise them. But that's a pretty big assumption. In the case of the Hawaiian crow, for example, one of the problems is that young crows raised in captivity do not learn the necessary survival skills that their wild parent crows would have taught them. Indeed, if not raised with utmost care, they imprint on their human caretakers or begin to behave neurotically. (The book Seeking the Sacred Raven by Mark Jerome Walters gives the details.)

Most of these points, and many others, are addressed in the talks. Reservations aside, this sort of research is doubtless the wave of the future, so it might as well be turned to a good cause.

Actually, I'm in favor of this. Tentatively, with some strong reservations...but this could be a really good thing. As Ben Novak, of the pigeon project, states in his talk, If you have a tree in your yard that's 150 years old, its branches remember the feet of the passenger pigeons. We're the ones who forgot.

And as another of the speakers said, if we can do this, maybe it's our duty to follow through. It's our fault that the pigeons are gone. Maybe we owe it to them to bring them back.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating, and so full of hope! On Saturday (my next day off!), I'm going to follow your link and listen to all of the talks. Yes, there are problems, the foremost, in my mind, being habitat. Passenger pigeons need(ed) huge forests of beech for nesting and food. Up here in the UP, our beech trees are all dying from some introduced horror, and the green ash are in trouble, too. (In their case, it's a borer.) Let's take some money for curing the ills of our trees! Still, how wonderful and exciting that it might even be possible to bring back, say, the Dodo, my personal favorite. MOM