The Plan to Bring the Iconic Passenger Pigeon Back From Extinction | Wired Science | Wired.com

Passenger pigeons are remembered romantically. It sounds like the reality was that they were kind of annoying. We don’t need deforestation and inch thick puddles of shit around every tree. Maybe they want to do this because the post office is going under… They should be resurrecting the dodo. The dodo was a much better bird in my opinion and I’ve always wondered what one would taste like.

Twelve birds lie belly-up in a wooden drawer at the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Bloated with stuffing, their ruddy brown chests resemble a row of sweet potatoes. Slate-blue heads and thin white tails protrude in perfect alignment, except for one bird that cranes its neck to face its neighbor. A pea-sized bulge of white cotton sits where its eye should be. A slip of paper tied to its foot reads, “Ectopistes migratorius. Manitoba. 1884.” This is the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird in North America. When Europeans first landed on the continent, they encountered billions of the birds. By 1914 they were extinct.

That may be about to change. Today scientists are meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss a plan to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction. The technical challenges are immense, and the ethical questions are slippery. But as genetic technology races ahead, a scenario that’s hard to imagine is becoming harder to dismiss out of hand.

About 1,500 passenger pigeons inhabit museum collections. They are all that’s left of a species once perceived as a limitless resource. The birds were shipped in boxcars by the tons, sold as meat for 31 cents per dozen, and plucked for mattress feathers. But in a mere 25 years, the population shrank from billions to thousands as commercial hunters decimated nesting flocks. Martha, the last living bird, took her place under museum glass in 1914.

Ben Novak doesn’t believe the story should end there. The 26-year-old genetics student is convinced that new technology can bring the passenger pigeon back to life. “This whole idea that extinction is forever is just nonsense,” he says. Novak spent the last five years working to decipher the bird’s genes, and now he has put his graduate studies on hold to pursue a goal he’d once described in a junior high school fair presentation: de-extinction.

Novak is not alone in his mission. An organization called Revive and Restore is enlisting the support of preeminent scientists—and even the National Geographic Society, which is hosting the TEDx meeting on the topic today, to investigate putting the passenger pigeon back in the sky. The group has chosen Novak to spearhead the project.

When the bird from the Berkeley drawer flew over Manitoba in 1884, it didn’t travel alone. Passenger pigeons were named for their passage up and down eastern North America in flocks several hundred million strong. To sustain long, strenuous flights, the birds devoured forests and left destruction in their wake. Ornithologist J.M. Wheaton described one flock as a rolling cylinder filled with leaves and grass. “The noise was deafening and the sight confusing to the mind,” he wrote in 1882. It was easy to tell where the pigeons had roosted: The trees were crippled, their branches cracked off and picked clean of nuts and acorns. For miles, the ground was coated with a layer of feces more than an inch thick.

Even before Europeans arrived, hunters shot nests with arrows or knocked them down with poles. But in the mid 19th century, the railroad and the telegraph turned the pigeon into a national commodity. Professional trackers followed the flocks and descended on nest sites. Their tactics were brutal and effective: Firing into the trees brought down thousands of birds in one afternoon. Setting a match to the combustible birch bark forced terrified chicks to fling themselves from their nests. By the late 1850s, flocks were shrinking. By 1889, the population was in the thousands.


The Manitoban pigeon lying in its drawer at Berkeley holds a vast library in its feet. Every cell in its fleshy toe pads contains the 1.5 billion base pairs of DNA that spell out the bird’s identity, from the color of its eggs to the sound of its voice. But this DNA has seen better days. It has been broken apart by enzymes and oxygen, zapped with ultraviolet radiation and contaminated by other organisms. “Whenever you touch it, your DNA gets in the sample,” said evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro of the University of California, Santa Cruz. “If it sits next to other birds, their DNA gets in the sample.”

But in the last decade, a set of techniques known as next-generation sequencing has offered a better way to work with less-than-perfect DNA. New machines can analyze hundreds of thousands of short fragments at the same time, speeding up the tedious sequencing process and bringing down its cost. “In the past 10 years, sequencing has gotten approximately 500,000 times more efficient,” said biostatistician Steven Salzberg of Johns Hopkins University. “Nothing in the history of civilization or technology has ever gotten that much more efficient that fast.”

Surmounting such technical challenges is only phase one of Revive and Restore’s plan. Novak hopes to set up a sanctuary of lab-generated pigeon chicks in the bird’s original breeding territory. He would then train homing pigeons to pass over the nest site, showing the chicks their ancestral migration route. Novak says passenger pigeons would restore balance to forest ecosystems, clearing brush and fertilizing soil.

This strategy doesn’t make sense to Blockstein, who says “quote-unquote” before every mention of de-extinction. He doubts that any small population could survive long enough to reach its original numbers. If it did, he fears the bird would become a pest to farmers, consuming commercial berries and grain. Stanford University bioethicist Hank Greely shares this concern. “You’re re-introducing to the same geographic region,” he said. “But not to the same environment.”

No governing body exists to make decisions about re-introducing an extinct species. Once the science is within reach, Novak says he will work with wildlife management authorities to set up a legal framework.

Beyond the ecological risks, Revive and Restore has a bigger “why” question to answer. The argument that extinction is forever underlies important protections like the Endangered Species Act, Greely says. Why try to rewrite the passenger pigeon’s iconic cautionary tale?

One possible answer: to do it responsibly before someone does it recklessly. The genomic tools of de-extinction may soon be cheap enough for students and DIY types to try on their own, Brand told an audience at the 2012 Aspen Environmental Forum. “I would like to see some kind of framework of how we think about that, before it goes totally amateur.” If an organized effort like Revive and Restore tackles a high-profile and tightly controlled project, it might bring scientists and the public into an important conversation, he argued.

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