The challenges of bringing the extinct Passenger Pigeon back to life

2/5/2014 | 0

Passenger Pigeon on nest, 1896/1913, by J.G. Hubbard, Wikimedia Commons.

Passenger Pigeon on nest, 1896/1913, by J.G. Hubbard, Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout 2014 we’ll be marking the centenary of a sad event: the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. To kick things off, we reserved space in our first issue of the year (February) for a special feature article by Joel Greenberg, a founder of Project Passenger Pigeon and the author of the new book A Feathered River Across the Sky. His article included the following provocative sidebar, excerpted from his book:

FeatheredRiverClaims of cloning have been made for a frog, carp, and maybe 20 species of mammals. In many cases, the “successful” clone lived but a short time due to defects that are almost inevitable when shortcutting the intricate steps that have developed over millions of years of evolution. No bird has ever been cloned, not even those that are economically important, although poultry have been genetically manipulated.

All successful clones have been from tissues taken from living or freshly killed animals. The freezing and thawing of such tissues damages cells and destroys their suitability for cloning unless specific cryoprotectants are used. Still, the prospect of bringing back to life an extinct bird and releasing it into the wild is exciting enough for scientists and others to give it serious consideration.

The Long Now Foundation hosted a meeting at the Harvard Medical School to discuss that possibility in February 2012. Of various approaches, the one with the most promise involved the extraction of DNA from Passenger Pigeons and using that to create Passenger Pigeon traits in a Band-tailed Pigeon. A host of challenges were identified, such as:

1. At what point, if ever, does a genetically altered Band-tailed Pigeon become a Passenger Pigeon?

2. If a handful of Passenger Pigeons could be created for life in a zoo, is that even worth doing?

3. Are vast flocks an essential attribute of Passenger Pigeons?

Even if all the scientific problems inherent in producing live Passenger Pigeons could be mastered, a host of political and other challenges of perhaps even greater difficulty would remain in creating wild, reproducing populations of the species. As of June 2013, additional discussions are being held and genetic research is moving forward.

From A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury, 2014). Copyright 2014 by Joel Greenberg. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury. We included the book in the semiannual roundup of notable new books published in our December 2013 issue. Subscribe.

Read about the great Passenger Pigeon comeback (Long Now Foundation).

How scientists plan to bring the Passenger Pigeon back from extinction (Wired).

Why de-extinction is a fascinating but dumb idea, by Paul R. Ehrlich (environment360).

Timeline: See how the Passenger Pigeon went from billions to none in 422 years.

Project Passenger Pigeon

Throughout 2014, Project Passenger Pigeon will use a documentary film and a host of exhibits and programs to raise awareness of human-caused extinction, explore connections between humans and the natural world, and inspire the building of sustainable relationships with other species. Find a calendar of events and information on how you can take part at passengerpigeon.org.