"Conservation has done 40 years of 'Save the pandas. Save the rhinos. If they go extinct, everything will go to hell.' And it's been a lot of doom and gloom with not a lot of emphasis on, 'Here's a problem, how do we solve it?'" laments ecologist Ben Novak, lead researcher for the Revive and Restore project at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Novak wants to solve the problem of species endangerment by retrieving genetic material from bygone, taxidermied animals and revivifying it with help from their surviving cousins. It's all part of a "de-extinction" campaign being funded by the Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit project that includes the Whole Earth Catalog's Stewart Brand, novelist Neal Stephenson, musician Brian Eno, and others. Founded in 1996, the foundation is dedicated to "long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years." Long Now wants to bring back everything from the humble passenger pigeon to the majestic woolly mammoth.
The last passenger pigeon died in 1914, wiped out by humans armed with low-tech muzzle-loaded shotguns and nets. Prior to their eradication, the birds acted as catalysts to biodiversity, clearing forests and spreading guano in a way that promoted new plant growth and animal habitats. But the kind of method Long Now favors for bringing the pigeons back always runs into the same objection/cultural reference: Jurassic Park.
Novak argues that the focus should be less on fear of unleashing the unknown and more on adding new devices in the biodiversity toolbox. "The real moral fiber of the conservation movement for the past 40 years has been, 'Extinction is forever, so prevent it,'" he says. "In my mind, 'extinction is forever' should've never been the foundation of motivation to begin with, because it implies there's a finite end to solutions."
Zach Weissmueller spoke with Novak in his lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in June. For a video version of the interview, go to reason.com.
reason: What is a passenger pigeon and when did it go extinct?
Ben Novak: Most people, when they think about pigeons, they think about the street pigeon—the rat with wings. They think of them eating French fries behind McDonald's dumpsters. That's not the passenger pigeon at all.
It's this really beautiful, regal bird. What set them apart from all the other species of pigeons in the world was that they formed these really dense flocks that would be several hundred million birds to a billion birds in size, and they would darken the sky for days. All you have to do is make a quick Google search and you'll come across dozens of historic accounts, the most famous being from John James Audubon, when a flock flew over Kentucky and blotted out the sun. They were quite a force of nature, and a lot of questions have persisted about this species since they went extinct.
No one was really studying them when they were alive, which was in the 1800s. By the time they went extinct in 1914, there still wasn't any major ecology science to figure out [all the things] we would want to know. A lot of people have speculated and put together things from historic records, but what was really missing in the equation was being able to study the DNA.
That was what I originally intended to do with specimens from the passenger pigeons. But then Revive and Restore came on the scene with the idea of, "Well, if you can get the DNA to study the bird, maybe you could actually try and recreate the bird." So it's become a kind of a hybrid project of studying this species and thinking about bringing it back.
reason: You've sketched out this idea of these massive flocks of passenger pigeons. Could you talk about the unique behavior and what made that interesting from an ecological perspective?
Novak: Historically, we know that a giant flock comes into an area, they consume the resources for several hundred square miles, they live in a roosting or nesting site in a tiny spot…and they're so densely crowded into that area that as they come in at night to roost, they're overcrowding branches, snapping branches off of trees, sometimes breaking small trees off at the base as they bend them completely over under their weight. And they're depositing tons of droppings into that area—inches of guano—and that completely, radically changes the biochemistry of the soils. It kills all of the undergrowth that was there, but it also opens up that canopy. All that branch breaking is letting sunlight in.
So you can imagine the next year, when those birds are gone, you get a very thick regenerating underbrush. And that's what these birds were doing. They were stimulating regeneration cycles. And knowing this about the passenger pigeon ecology, we think [bringing them back] is going to be a major benefit for the ecosystems of the future.
reason: Your process for bringing them back is a sort of hybridization with modern species?
Novak: We're not creating the exact same passenger pigeon from 1874. The closest living relative of the passenger pigeon is the band-tailed pigeon, which lives out on the West Coast. The birds have a very similar ecology to passenger pigeons, but there's a few key differences between a bird that makes loosely associated flocks versus the bird that made these really dense high-population flocks. And we're going to try to figure out those traits and try to bring those in. So the bird we create will be hopefully a bird that looks like a passenger pigeon, acts like a passenger pigeon, and could fool anybody into believing that's the original passenger pigeon—but at the genetic level, it's a band-tailed pigeon that's been adapted.
reason: Talk about how you plan to teach your pigeons to act like passenger pigeons.
Novak: The idea is to make sure our birds not only have the right genes—the right stuff in their blood to be passenger pigeons—but to make sure they behave like passenger pigeons. We need to raise them like passenger pigeons. Probably the best way to do that is to prepare a flock of rock pigeons or band-tailed pigeons. Bring them out to New England, where we plan to work with our passenger pigeons. Get them used to that climate. Start to get those birds trained into being almost passenger pigeons. And then those are the birds that end up being the surrogate parents for at least the first two weeks or so of the life of the passenger pigeon.
reason: Your foundation's also working on the eventual return of the woolly mammoth. That's one of the big animals that sparks everyone's imagination. But for something that size, what does that look like coming back into the world?
Novak: What George [Church, the woolly mammoth project lead] is looking for when he makes a mammoth are the genes that would allow an elephant to survive in Siberia. The types of mutations that make the blood work better at cold temperatures, keeping the body warm. That make those layers of thick fat under the skin so they can survive the winter, and that charismatic woolly hair that coats the entire body.
The cool thing about trying to make an Asian elephant adapted to living in the cold is we can produce a population that lives in a place that's far away from the black market, in a habitat region that is not being destroyed by human beings. It's like a safe haven for an elephant population. If you can make five or six mutations that make that animal tolerant to the cold, and you can do that process, then you can always reverse those steps to get your original elephant back, and put them in Thailand or India.
In the grand scheme of looking at it from an evolutionary perspective, elephants were once a very diverse group. There were mastodons, mammoths, all kinds of crazy forms, and now they're a really rare group of animals. And in the paleontology record, we see that when an entire group starts to get less diverse, it's usually a bad sign. So the more we can facilitate the diversification of the elephant group, the more likely they'll be to adapt and live through the changes we've made in the world.
reason: What is the philosophy of de-extinction, if you can encapsulate that? Because a lot of people think, these animals didn't cut it for whatever reason, so going and putting them back into this dynamic system is only asking for trouble.
Novak: The real point of de-extinction as an emerging field is this notion of revolutionizing conservation. It's really not about trying to restore the past. It's about confronting our present and future.
To say it really succinctly, we as human beings have changed environments. We've created new environments. And some of these environments are fragmented and need more diversity. High biodiversity makes an adaptable ecosystem that does a lot of great things for people and ensures the future evolution of all the species in that environment.
We usually think of conservation as preservation, as, "We want to keep this patch of forest around forever." But as the climate changes—whether human beings are causing it or not—in the future, at some point in time, the pieces of land we've set aside, they're going to change. And the animals living there are going to have to leave or adapt. Unless that ecosystem is a diverse, healthy ecosystem, it won't adapt to that change, and we'll lose more than we're already losing today.
But even more so, there's a quality of human life that we've become accustomed to, and it really is based on the natural world around us. We're inspired by nature to invent new things. And we derive so much of our medical technology from natural ecosystems. In the genomes of the world's millions of species is the blueprint of how to survive three billion years of catastrophes and everything the world can throw at you.
reason: The cultural touchstone is obviously Jurassic Park. Are you at all afraid that this leads to some sort of Jurassic Park–like situation—not in the sense that there are dinosaurs running around, but in the sense that you're going to create this monster, that you can't predict what's going to happen, and that it's going to wreak havoc on the ecosystem or on humans?
Novak: Ever since we came out with this project, everyone asks about Jurassic Park. It was a huge cultural phenomenon around the world. And I know there's this wave of thinking about de-extinction and what its implications are. The one thing I would say to everyone about this is, we've been thinking about the major issues of de-extinction far more in-depth than any of the writers of a book or a movie could go into. If we do this right, there will undoubtedly be unknowns that we cannot predict. But as with any conservation project that does captive breeding or relocations of species, this just comes down to monitoring and doing things in phases. We've already established ground rules for how you go about managing these types of issues.
If you put a species into an ecosystem that hasn't been there in 100 years or 10,000 years, what do you do about things that might go wrong that you didn't think were going to happen? Well, that comes down to your basic management. If we can put it into that ecosystem, we can bring it back out. Bring it back into captivity, see if we can't fix the problem, see if there's anything else on the ground we can do.
Specifically for passenger pigeons, people worry. They think, "Oh, flocks of billions, that'll be disastrous." We even got an email telling us to pull out now before our monster pigeon destroys the world. So I have to reiterate this: People caused the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the 1800s with muzzle-loading shotguns. They managed to cripple a species of 5 billion in a span of 50 years with very low-tech means. Today we can watch these animals from satellites with GPS tags. It's not like these birds can get away from us in ways we can't control. It's a pigeon. What is honestly the worst that could happen?
And with mammoths in Siberia, this isn't about putting a species in to integrate into the ecosystem that's there. The heart of this is actually about changing that ecosystem. It's about building a new ecosystem. So we want there to be change when we do these projects. It's not about the past. It's about constructing something for the future.
reason: Another criticism of de-extinction is that it's just a fantasy that distracts us from the problems of habitat destruction.
Novak: On top of criticisms of monsters and zombie birds, a much more serious worry that comes from the conservation community is that this is a distraction from the conservation strategies that work and matter and need money most. There's a big misconception that we have some major source of funding for millions of dollars that we're pumping into these de-extinction projects that we should be putting into other areas. I think [these criticisms] really highlight a problem with the world of conservation, which is that limited resources are such a major concern.
It's very depressing and worrying that we're putting so little resources into any forms of conservation. To us, de-extinction is not about replacing or curbing projects that could have happened if we didn't do this. It's about diversifying what conservation is doing. We're not taking money from other projects. We're trying to seek out new sources of funding that have never gone into these types of things before, and really optimizing the technologies that can work for any type of conservation problem.
The real moral fiber of conservation for the last 40 years has been, "Extinction is forever, so prevent it." And we're coming along, saying, "We can recreate these extinct ecologies," and that fundamentally turns the whole pyramid of conservation upside down.
In my view, "extinction is forever" should've never been the foundation to begin with, because it implies there's a finite end to solutions. Conservation has done 40 years of "Save the pandas. Save the rhinos. If they go extinct, everything will go to hell." And it's been a lot of doom and gloom with not a lot of emphasis on, "Here's a problem, how do we solve it?" We're just trying to bring to the floor more solutions to challenges that traditional forms of conservation have proven again and again to just be utter failures at confronting.
reason: Can you talk about where you get the DNA samples from?
Novak: Contrary to the silver screen, you cannot actually get DNA from bugs trapped in amber. People have been unable to get DNA from dinosaur fossils. They're just too old. "You cannot clone from stone." But you can get ample amounts of great DNA from museum specimens, taxidermied birds.
If it's kept cold, it's kept good. So if you're [trying to get] mammoth DNA, go up to Siberia. Dig a bone out of the permafrost. That bone has DNA still trapped in it. It's not fossilized yet. That's the key difference between a mammoth bone that's 40,000 years old and a T-Rex bone that's 65 million years old.
reason: When can people expect to see passenger pigeons flying across the sky and mammoths walking across the tundra?
Novak: The key thing I can say to anyone when they ask this question is, there are many obstacles [to] research and development. But all that is required to get those done is a source of funding. Once you have the funding, you can get the minds on it and go. So if you want to see passenger pigeons and mammoths, donate to the cause and help get this thing going.
If we continue to get the public support we need, then our projected goal is to have some form of passenger pigeon by 2022. This hinges on being able to start doing some engineering by 2018, and then being able to spend the next few years getting the right product. Right now we're studying the genomes, we're trying to set up the right facilities, we're trying to figure out the ecology of how putting a bird back into the forest will work. You know, thinking ahead.
But yeah, the grand timeline would be to have our passenger pigeons in 2022. If we can get the right amount of captive breeding done in five years, we could start thinking about doing a type of soft release, moving birds from one site to another. With the right propagation from there, we could consider trying to do the first actual full releases in 2032. And then it just becomes your standard conservation project where you continue to kind of supply the wild with more birds until we think we've got them up to a certain number where they can manage themselves.
With the mammoth, that's a huge project mainly because you're dealing with such huge animals. George really wants to try to create some new mammoth in the next five years. This hinges on being able to implant an embryo into an elephant. And I think with the right drive that might be possible. I tend to be a little skeptical that [within] five years we could see a baby mammoth, or the first baby elephant that can live in the cold, but you know, with the idea of trying to push for five years—it's probably doable in 10.