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Jurassic Pigeon

Bringing extinct animals back to life is now within our grasp, says Long Now Foundation researcher Ben Novak.

Passenger pigeonsSpencer Sutton/Science Source"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?

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  • Vampire||

    Like we need a billion birds flying around shitting everything up in their path. Damn car washes are probably partnered with this Long now foundation.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I have to say, my reaction is about the same. The narrative on the Passanger Pigeon really doesn't get into WHY they were slaughtered. Has anyone checked contemporary records recently? They sound like they may have been about as welcome as a locust swarm.

  • Christophe||

    I just went and read the Wikipedia article. Most of the stuff there talks about how ridiculously easy to hunt they were, how they were a cheap source of meat and feathers for pillows. There's not much indication that they were considered particularly destructive, (although that may just be selection bias). There's no record of there ever being bounties on their carcasses, unlike other pests.

    Like the Dodo, they probably fell into the "too weak to live" category.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    I just can't imagine that a flock of birds a billion strong, that blackened the sky and left a deposit of shit an inch deep, wasn't a serious pest.

  • JFree||

    No American today has heard of the Rocky Mountain locust. The 1875 swarm (12+ trillion insects) was probably the size of Texas. Went extinct because that's roughly when we started plowing the prairie and eliminating their between-swarm nests.

  • DenverJ||

    Yes, actually, they were mentioned above thread. And their nests were aggressively hunted and destroyed, it didn't just happen by happy coincidence when we plowed. Most of the Rocky Mtn west is used for grazing, not planting.

  • Bubba Jones||

    No one had cars

  • GroundTruth||

    They were like lobsters 150 years ago; so plentiful that most people turned their noses up at them. But just the same, they were shot, cleaned, salted and sold by the barrel as poor-man's food, or animal feed.

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    You obviously know nothing about ecology. The passenger pigeon was a keystone species that had a very beneficial effect on the whole eastern U.S. The reason they are extinct is because of market hunting. You can't have market hunting of an unowned resource. I think what these guys are trying to do is awesome and exciting.

  • JFree||

    Sounds like a violation of the non-aggression principle to me. If a Mexican or a Muslim or the KochBros were flying around pooping on people; that would certainly be a violation.

  • ||

    as Michelle explained I am startled that any body able to earn $8039 in four weeks on the internet . Check This Out

  • ||

  • SIV||

    We'll be able to kill and eat these invasive franken-pigeons?

  • Christophe||

    It would be pretty retarded to brand a previously-extinct and now resurrected species as "endangered".

    Therefore there's a 90% chance the EPA will do it.

  • Christophe||

    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.

    This is the best part of the interview. Fuck it, we can store elephants up north for a couple of generations, just as an insurance policy.

  • GroundTruth||

    I hope he's prepared for disappointment with the passenger pigeon. As I recall, they really aren't happy (won't breed) in flocks of less than about 50,000, which was the reason they went extinct in zoos. It's not that there wasn't an attempt to save the species, but the birds weren't interested.

  • ||

    That is intriguingly kinky.

  • drzewny chipper for rent||

    Just to settle it once and for all: Which came first the Chicken or the Egg? The Egg — laid by a bird that was not a Chicken
    — Neil deGrasse Tyson

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    There are so many "unanswerable" questions like that to which the answer seems obvious, at least to me.

    If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, or COURSE it makes a noise. We know that plants can sense sound. There's some disagreement on what purpose it serves, but we know it happens. Since it is not a forest without plants (without plants, it would be a wasteland) then there is necessarily something to detect the sound of a tree falling.

  • DenverJ||

    But, by your own logic, there is someone there to hear it, that someone just happens to be a plant.
    So it doesn't really answer the question. Change the question to "without an observer, does reality exist?"

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    A plant is not "someone", unless you are trying to be needlessly difficult.

  • dchang0||

    It is not so cut-and-dried as "plants aren't persons so they don't count." Other scientists are finding that some plants can hear being eaten and act in their own defense:

    http://www.pri.org/stories/201.....out-plants

    "And we assume you need ears to hear. But researchers, says Pollan, have played a recording of a caterpillar munching on a leaf to plants — and the plants react. They begin to secrete defensive chemicals — even though the plant isn't really threatened, Pollan says. "It is somehow hearing what is, to it, a terrifying sound of a caterpillar munching on its leaves."

    ---

    Look into this topic further: "Without an observer, does reality exist?" is actually a very profound question being investigated by quantum physicists.

  • ||

    Chickens, eggs, noises and falling trees. Ugh.

    Simple questions used to illustrate the importance of defining terms. You aren't supposed to actually try to answer them.

    It is amusing to watch numbskulls scream at each other over those silly questions. I once watched two idiots get into a fist fight over the falling tree question.

  • DenverJ||

    because it implies there's a finite end to solutions.

    You know who else was interested in a final solution?

  • gaoxiaen||

    Einstein? The fucker who put a speed limit on space.

  • DenverJ||

    And was always looking for a Grand Unified Theory, too. Yes, the judges will allow the answer.

  • SIV||

    He's worse than Jimmy Carter Richard Nixon!

    I won't fly 299792458 m/s !

  • Vampire||

    It was the Hamburglar!!

  • cavalier973||

    We were just listening to a Celtic music program, and the idiot artist started talking about how capitalism destroyed both the Scottish O sorry and the Highlander way of life. So, I reached through the radio and smacked him upside the back of his head. Then, I explained to my children that, but for capitalism, the artist would not have the time and wherewithal to be concerned about the I sorry, except perhaps what vegetable to seve with it.

  • cavalier973||

    Osprey, not "O Sorry"

  • cavalier973||

    Ahsprey

  • cavalier973||

    Ozpree

  • cavalier973||

    Fish eagle

  • GroundTruth||

    no matter what you call them, they're a damned nuisance.

    Yes, we were all excited to have them come back after DDT was banned, but not quite so excited when they build a 500 # nest on a telephone pole that causes the whole thing to come down and take out the power.

  • Bubba Jones||

    I miss Kate Upton in the game of war ads

  • Notorious UGCC||

    "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?'""

    Check out the hook, while my DJ revolves it.

    That was easy.

  • LD||

    We now have aviation dangers with other flocking birds; here they are talking about flocks with nine or ten numerals in the number of individuals in the population. No reasonable human would want to fly. There weren't any jet engines back in 1914. Also, this is manipulation of DNA in a Frankensteinian or Michael Creightonian potential disaster. I know this is a referral to fictional works, but do we really want to fool with the DNA of something as expansive as the potential numbers of this species? If the forests need fertilizer let other emerging species do the trick--I mean does the pope ---- in the woods, is a bear Catholic?

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