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The Plan To Bring The Iconic Passenger Pigeon Back From Extinction

Publication Date: 
March 15, 2013
Source: 
Wired
Author: 
Kelly Servick

Professor Hank Greely spoke with Wired's Kelly Servick about plans to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction and his concerns for their survival due to the change in today's enviornment. 

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.

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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."

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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?

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In Novak's mind, reviving the pigeon is not just about turning back the clock, but also demonstrating the exhilarating pace of science. "It's actually going to get people more interested in the idea of conservation, because of how cool it is," Novak said. Greely doesn’t dismiss this argument. He believes "a sense of wonder" is one of the most compelling cases for de-extinction.

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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."