What Do Mammoths And Passenger Pigeons Have In Common?

Passenger Pigeon Extinct 1914. Billions of the pigeons were alive just a few decades earlier. Like the other animals shown here, it has been proposed for de-extinction projects. Credit Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times. Passenger pigeon, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.

Passenger Pigeon Extinct 1914. Billions of the pigeons were alive just a few decades earlier. Like the other animals shown here, it has been proposed for de-extinction projects. Credit Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times. Passenger pigeon, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.

He had me at mammoth. When he added passenger pigeon, I demonstrated the definition of click bait. I had to learn more. I will reserve judgement for now, but can recommend your reading what I have just read. Both species may be back in business soon, with the assistance of de-extinction science according to this story in the current New York Times Magazine.  Not far from the beginning of the story, this fascinating letter is excerpted:

…Brand became obsessed with the idea. Reviving an extinct species was exactly the kind of ambitious, interdisciplinary and slightly loopy project that appealed to him. Three weeks after his conversation with Flannery, Brand sent an email to Church and the biologist Edward O. Wilson:

Dear Ed and George . . .

The death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914 was an event that broke the public’s heart and persuaded everyone that extinction is the core of humanity’s relation with nature.

George, could we bring the bird back through genetic techniques? I recall chatting with Ed in front of a stuffed passenger pigeon at the Comparative Zoology Museum [at Harvard, where Wilson is a faculty emeritus], and I know of other stuffed birds at the Smithsonian and in Toronto, presumably replete with the requisite genes. Surely it would be easier than reviving the woolly mammoth, which you have espoused.

The environmental and conservation movements have mired themselves in a tragic view of life. The return of the passenger pigeon could shake them out of it — and invite them to embrace prudent biotechnology as a Green tool instead of menace in this century. . . . I would gladly set up a nonprofit to fund the passenger pigeon revival. . . .

Wild scheme. Could be fun. Could improve things. It could, as they say, advance the story.

What do you think?

In less than three hours, Church responded with a detailed plan to return “a flock of millions to billions” of passenger pigeons to the planet.

In February 2012, Church hosted a symposium at Harvard Medical School called “Bringing Back the Passenger Pigeon.” Church gave a demonstration of his new genome-editing technology, and other biologists and avian specialists expressed enthusiasm for the idea. “De-extinction went from concept to potential reality right before our eyes,” said Ryan Phelan, Brand’s wife, an entrepreneur who founded an early consumer medical-genetics company. “We realized that we could do it not only for the passenger pigeon, but for other species. There was so much interest and so many ideas that we needed to create an infrastructure around it. It was like, ‘Oh, my God, look at what we’ve unleashed.’ ” Phelan, 61, became executive director of the new project, which they named Revive & Restore.

Several months later, the National Geographic Society hosted a larger conference to debate the scientific and ethical questions raised by the prospect of “de-extinction.” Brand and Phelan invited 36 of the world’s leading genetic engineers and biologists, among them Stanley Temple, a founder of conservation biology; Oliver Ryder, director of the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo, which stockpiles frozen cells of endangered species; and Sergey Zimov, who has created an experimental preserve in Siberia called Pleistocene Park, which he hopes to populate with woolly mammoths.

To Brand’s idea that the pigeon project would provide “a beacon of hope for conservation,” conference attendees added a number of ecological arguments in support of de-extinction. Just as the loss of a species decreases the richness of an ecosystem, the addition of new animals could achieve the opposite effect. The grazing habits of mammoths, for instance, might encourage the growth of a variety of grasses, which could help to protect the Arctic permafrost from melting — a benefit with global significance, as the Arctic permafrost contains two to three times as much carbon as the world’s rain forests. “We’ve framed it in terms of conservation,” Brand told me. “We’re bringing back the mammoth to restore the steppe in the Arctic. One or two mammoths is not a success. 100,000 mammoths is a success.”

A less scientific, if more persuasive, argument was advanced by the ethicist Hank Greely and the law professor Jacob Sherkow, both of Stanford. De-extinction should be pursued, they argued in a paper published in Science, because it would be really cool. “This may be the biggest attraction and possibly the biggest benefit of de-extinction. It would surely be very cool to see a living woolly mammoth.”…

Read the whole story here.

8 thoughts on “What Do Mammoths And Passenger Pigeons Have In Common?

  1. Pingback: Mammoths with different coat colours? | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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