Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sustainable Saturday -Bringing Back the Dead (Species, that Is)

Bring back the dead? No, I'm not talking about zombies, although that would probably boost readership of my blog substantially.  In fact, the last time I blogged about zombies, the spammers headed for that post, what is a herd of zombies called, anyway?  I had to fight spammers off, with my trusted Japanese katana zombie fighting sword, for months.

Rather, I am talking about man-made extinction, and the process of what some call de-extinction, or recreating (as best we can) a species that currently is extinct.

100 years ago this week, the passenger pigeon, once a bird numbering in the billions here in the United States, became extinct.  And yes, that is a subject perfect for a Sustainable Saturday.

These birds, it was estimated, once composed about 40% of the United States' bird population.  Their flocks darkened the sky, so much so that some early pioneers thought they were enduring the end of the world when a flock flew over.  The flocks destroyed trees when they roosted by the sheer weight of their numbers.  Their sounds were deafening.  Their numbers, it seemed, were limitless. 

They were hunted. And hunted.  And hunted.  Passenger pigeon - yes, it was what was for dinner.

We were wrong about the limitless numbers part.  The huge flocks made hunting a little too easy.

The extinction process only took about 40 years. 

On September 1, 1913, the last living passenger pigeon, named Martha by humans, died, in a cage, at the Cincinnati Zoo. You can view her preserved body today, as I have, at the Smithsonian at Washington, DC.  If you visit, ponder how easily we can upset our ecology and make changes that can not be undone.

Or can we?

I understand that the passenger pigeon somewhat resembled a common bird here in upstate New York, the mourning dove. But, actually, there is a closer related pigeon still alive, called the band-tailed pigeon.  And now there are scientists who are wondering if we can, in some way, bring a bird as similar as possible to the passenger pigeon back, using the band-tailed pigeon and passenger pigeon DNA.  It is a complicated question.

Last year, I blogged about the process of "de-extinction".  

With the passenger pigeon, there are actually a fair number of - shall we say preserved specimens, where DNA could be obtained. But the process is not easy.  We've actually tried with a species of mammal that became extinct in 2000, and failed. 
And then there was the movie Jurassic Park. (I so love the satire on its theme song done by Weird Al and its ponderings on what could go wrong if scientists de-extinct dinosaurs. Enjoy!)

Assuming we can develop the skills to bring a sort-of passenger pigeon back into existence, the question becomes - should we?  Would we care less about protecting endangered species if we could (in some cases) bring them back?  Plus, the environment has adjusted to the absence of the passenger pigeon - could de extinction become a case of unintended consequences?

But, on the other hand, do we have a moral obligation to try, since this extinction was totally our doing?

What do you think?


  1. Wow - what an interesting topic! I honestly don't know what I think about this - I can see both sides of the situation and will have to ponder this some more. Thanks for sharing!

    1. You are welcome. There are definitely good arguments, both pro and con.

  2. Hey Alana

    WOWZA! This is an extremely thought-provoking post. I thoroughly enjoy your 'edutaining' musings about nature, history and LIFE! #HUGSS

    As for the passenger-pigeon, I do believe we should try bringing them back, if only to satiate our curiosity about whether this is even possible. In addition, I don't believe these birds were harmful - unlike T-Rexes, i.e. :P. And since I don't have a scientific bent of mind, I cannot think of any immediate reason as to why their de-extinction can lead to harmful consequences.

    But I should re-visit D.C to check out Martha though!

    Thanks for another lovely post...Muaah


    1. Thank you. On the "pro" side, we may learn things through these studies that might help those with certain genetic diseases. Who knows?

  3. Well, got to know a lot from this informative post....can't say anything about bringing them back, but we should protect the endangered species at the moment...
    loved reading the post!

    1. Thank you for visiting. I was thrilled to see this very topic discussed today on a major network's Sunday morning show but (lol) they didn't quote me. Your point was one of the points brought up in the discussion - that there are many species endangered at this very moment that deserve our attention.


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