The Great Comeback: Bringing a Species Back from Extinction: What If Extinction Could Be Undone? the Disappearance of the Once-Numerous Passenger Pigeon Inspired One Budding Young Geneticist to Right a Great Ornithological Wrong

By Novak, Ben J. | The Futurist, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

The Great Comeback: Bringing a Species Back from Extinction: What If Extinction Could Be Undone? the Disappearance of the Once-Numerous Passenger Pigeon Inspired One Budding Young Geneticist to Right a Great Ornithological Wrong


Novak, Ben J., The Futurist


Eleven years ago, as an eighth grader from a school in Alexander, North Dakota, with fewer than 100 students, I won best project for my division of the State Science Fair. This victory would go on to decide the course of my life. I won with a project that was completely intellectual and had no experimental portion of any kind: It concerned the possibility of someday "cloning the dodo bird," that iconic poster bird of extinction.

At that science fair, a judge from the North Dakota Pigeon Association told me that the dodo bird was in the pigeon family. This fact nestled in my brain and grew. I had little conscious idea of what this inkling of passion would soon become.

A short time later, I was in a bookstore looking through a text on the history of conservation efforts by the National Audubon Society, a book I implored my parents to purchase for me. Thumbing through page after page, I came to a photograph. It was a pigeon. Like the dodo bird, it was an extinct pigeon, but in shape it looked much more like the doves that flew over my prairie home and the pigeons that strut the streets of every city.

It was the most beautiful bird I'd ever seen. I needed that photograph. This beautiful, bygone species is known as the passenger pigeon, and to the overcompensating Linnaean Latin science lovers it is Ectcrpistes migratorius. It was once the most numerous bird in the world, but this species succumbed to our activities. The last one died on September 1, 1914, her body found in her aviary at 1 p.m. The passenger pigeon was gone from the skies. I've made it my life's work to bring it back.

Finding the Materials to Do The Impossible

I soon learned that I was too late to be the first one doing passenger pigeon research. In the next year and a half, two papers would be published by two different labs studying passenger pigeon DNA. With these other groups conducting research, it proved to be difficult to get passenger pigeon samples. I shifted work to a new species and tried as hard as I could to figure out how to get my hand into passenger pigeon research.

I sent sample requests around the world for tissue to work with, hoping I could "sneak" it in amongst my current work until I got money for the expensive pieces of the process. I reworked the angle of the project and delved into harder-to-find records: the archaeological specimens of the bird. Then, in February 2011, I went to Chicago's Field Museum to sample mastodon fossils for my master's thesis project. I asked to visit the ornithology collection.

Much to my surprise, Dave Willard, now the emeritus curator of birds at the museum, had seen my proposal for tissue many weeks earlier. In that moment, he was obliged to cut tiny spots of flesh from the feet of three passenger pigeon males shot near Troy, New York, 152 years ago. It was my first chance to ever hold the bird I love, and to see them so closely in hand was a culminating moment--one that, sadly, I feel more intensely now, looking back at the photographs of a smiling 24-year-old holding FMNH 47396.

Nine months later, I extracted the DNA and prepared it for sequencing, a process involving four very laborious days of work. Now I needed the money to obtain the precious DNA code locked in what was now a tiny tube of clear liquid--almost a ghost of the once-living pigeon that flew over the trees of New York.

My work has come a great distance since that tiny tube of clear liquid passed hands from mine into the lab tech at the sequencing facility. Just three weeks later, what was returned to me were digital files containing the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs of deciphered DNA fragments. In a sample like this, DNA might not come directly from the specimen; it can come from bacteria and tiny fungal spores growing on the specimen's tissues during the century that it sat in a museum collection's drawer. DNA from the curators--and eventually, even from myself--works its way into the tiny crevices of texture in the tissue. …

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