January 20, 2019

Can Science Revive an Extinct Species?

“When settlers arrived in North America, the most abundant bird species on the continent was the passenger pigeon. The grayish bird with an iridescent bronze neck was about a foot-and-a-half long and resembled, according to historian and elegist Joel Greenberg, “a mourning dove on steroids.” There were likely between 3 and 5 billion of them on the continent, and the largest flocks congregated primarily east of the Rocky Mountains. Witnessing a passenger-pigeon migration over the Ohio River in 1813, naturalist John James Audubon marveled that “the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse” for three days straight.

Passenger pigeons often behaved as an agricultural pest: their vast nesting colonies bent trees out of shape, and they often blanketed the forest floor with a thick layer of excrement—enough to decimate the understorey. The birds were also seen as valuable for their meat and feathers. As a result, they were shot and trapped en masse.

Overhunting, combined with catastrophic habitat loss due to forest fragmentation, turned the passenger pigeon into a cautionary tale for conservationists. The population plummeted from billions to zero within a century. On September 1, 1914, a passenger pigeon named Martha, who was bred in captivity, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last known living passenger pigeon, and she was dutifully transported to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in an enormous block of ice. She remains there on display to this day.”

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