Monday, August 5, 2013

Should the Passenger Pigeon Be De-Extincted?

The passenger pigeon.  Can we bring them back to life?  Can we, using a certain process, de-extinct them?  (Yes, that is a word.)

And if we can - should we?

I remember, many years ago, seeing the last passenger pigeon on display at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum in Washington, DC.  Her name was Martha (named after Martha Washington, George Washington's wife). She died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.   They couldn't locate a male bird for her.

The Smithsonian Magazine website (link above) goes on to tell the story of how this species became extinct.  101 years before the last one died, this happened:

"In 1813, ornithologist John James Audubon was riding across the state of Kentucky when the sky was darkened by an enormous flock of passenger pigeons. The cloud of birds continued past all day. He estimated that there were as many as 1 billion pigeons in the flock; other scientists have calculated that the species once constituted 25 to 40 percent of all birds in the U.S."
There were billions of them once, and maybe there can be again - but perhaps not.  But first, a little about this native American bird.

Larger than a mourning dove, the stuffed passenger pigeons we are left with remind me of a large, kind of strange robinish dove.  They bred in large colonies, with up to 100 nests in a single tree, we are told. Their colonies could stretch over hundreds of miles.  They could fly at over 60 mph, and had a migratory habit. 

They, unfortunately, were good, cheap eating, and an entire pigeon canning industry was built up around them.  If you had to hunt one yourself today, assuming there were any to hunt, you could even find a recipe online.

I've read (and I don't know if it was true) that before the white man came to the North American continent, their numbers weren't as large.  Native Americans were one of their predators, and thanks to their decrease in population (disease and war) at the hands of the European immigrants, the population of the passenger pigeon (yes, I have to say it) soared.

So, it boils (no pun intended, honest) down to this:
We made them extinct.
Well, we apparently do have a way to bring them back, sort of, at least in theory.  Their DNA has been sequenced, and perhaps there is enough non-degraded DNA from these 100 plus year old specimens to combine with that of the band-tailed pigeon, their closest living genetic relative.

Can we recreate their social structure?
Is enough of their original environment undamaged to support substantial flocks?  Or, worse, would they destroy the modern day environment they would be released into?  Would they become a nuisance that future generations will curse us for?

Or, perhaps we would simply raise them for gourmet food?  My spouse declared "if they are that tasty, I'm all for it!"

To be honest, I have a lot of mixed feelings about this project.  Whatever we do, we should give it a lot of thought first.

What do you think?

10 comments:

  1. Nature is delicately balanced, and when humans interfere she is thrown out of kilter.

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    1. I agree. We threw nature off when we killed off the passenger pigeon, and not sure it should happen again by bringing them back - now that Nature has adjusted to their absence.

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  2. It would be desirable if we knew that there would be no unintended consequences. But there usually is!

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    1. I agree. And sometimes unintended consequences can be pretty horrible.

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  3. This is a hard one. I guess it's the same as bringing back a dinosaur, which wouldn't be a good idea. Maybe man shouldn't meddle with creatures from the past. Visiting from Blogger's Corner. http://475035832790540880.weebly.com/blog.html

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    1. On the one hand, this creature is only 100 years out of the past. But on the other hand, our environment has adjusted to their absence and I have to think - is this something we want to do just to lessen our guilt and make us (humanity) feel good? Or to serve the purpose of Nature?

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  4. Oh God! Can you imagine the havoc/ chaos if they brought back dinosaurs! Is it physically possible?

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    1. Sophie, as it happens, my husband has been fascinated by dinosaurs since early childhood, and he's in his 60's now. He still reads occasional studies on them. It might be possible to insert dinosaur DNA into a lizard - or perhaps, a bird? - but the DNA might be so degraded - even after 100 years there are doubts on if passenger pigeon DNA has degraded too much to be useable. But at least, they have a close living relative to use to fill in the DNA "gaps".

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  5. Haha. On the fence with this one. Love the idea of having them back but wonder when science should leave things alone...

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    1. I'm with you on this one. The law of Unintended Consequences....

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