Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jurassic Park for pigeons

Yes, we probably can 'DE-EXTINCT' doomed bird, but should we?

  • Print

It is often said the passenger pigeon, once among the most abundant birds in North America, traveled in flocks so enormous they darkened the skies for hours as they passed. The idea the bird, which numbered in the billions, might disappear seemed as absurd as losing the cockroach. And yet, hunting and habitat destruction pushed the animal to extinction. Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Plans are afoot to bring back the bird by using a weird-science process called de-extinction. The work is being spearheaded by Ben J. Novak, a young biologist who is backed by some big names, including the Harvard geneticist George Church.

Novak's idea takes a page from "Jurassic Park," in which dinosaur DNA was filled in with corresponding fragments from living amphibians, birds and reptiles. Working with Church's lab and Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Novak plans to use passenger pigeon DNA taken from museum specimens and fill in the blanks with fragments from the band-tailed pigeon. This reconstituted genome would be inserted into a band-tailed pigeon stem cell, which would transform into a germ cell, the precursor of egg and sperm. The scientists would inject these germ cells into developing band-tailed pigeons. As those birds mate, their eventual offspring would express the passenger pigeon genes, coming as close to being passenger pigeons as the available genetic material allows.

The process is not the same as cloning. Novak's approach would use a mishmash of genes recovered from different passenger pigeons, resulting in birds as unique as any from the original flocks.

Some scientists say even if the passenger pigeon is re-created, it's unlikely to be viable as a species in today's ecosystem.

Such a proposition, some experts say, poses a number of fundamental problems: There is some question as to whether today's forests can support a restored passenger pigeon population, and its nesting behaviours make the bird particularly susceptible to dying out again.

"Much of their breeding and wintering habitat is gone," says Scott C. Yaich, director of conservation for Ducks Unlimited, and the animal's primary breeding-season food -- beech mast, the nuts of a beech tree -- is limited.

The birds "simply couldn't be restored to a landscape that is so radically altered from the one to which they were uniquely adapted," says Yaich.

Other experts say given the nesting behaviour of the passenger pigeon, releasing a handful of birds into the wild would be a losing proposition.

The mainstream view of passenger pigeon ecology is they used a reproductive strategy called predator satiation. The recent cicada invasion in the Northeast is one example of this strategy. Each cicada is individually easy to catch in its slow, bumbling flight. But there are so many millions of cicadas in a spot at one time they are able to finish mating and laying eggs before predators have had time to eat all of them. If only a few thousand cicadas emerged at once, then most of them would probably be eaten before they were able to reproduce. In this way, the cicada's survival depends on showing up in hordes.

Passenger pigeons succeeded through a similar sort of mob rule. Individually, their behaviour was borderline reckless. They built flimsy nests, often dangerously low to the ground. The nests were built so hastily when bad weather would slow down construction, a female would sometimes be forced to lay her eggs on the ground. When the young were ready to leave the nest -- after only 14 days of development -- they would spend their first few days on the ground, vulnerable to any hungry predator. Passenger pigeons could get away with such behaviour because of their incredible numbers.

 

-- Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 D4

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Keri Latimer looks for beauty in the dark and the spaces between the notes

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A Great Horned Owl that was caught up in some soccer nets in Shamrock Park in Southdale on November 16th was rehabilitated and returned to the the city park behind Shamrock School and released this afternoon. Sequence of the release. December 4, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
  • Geese fight as a male defends his nesting site at the duck pond at St Vital Park Thursday morning- See Bryksa’s Goose a Day Photo- Day 08- May 10, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What should the city do with the 102-year-old Arlington Street bridge?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google