Twelve birds lie belly-up in a wooden drawer at the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Bloated with stuffing, their ruddy brown chests resemble a row of sweet potatoes. Slate-blue heads and thin white tails protrude in perfect alignment, except for one bird that cranes its neck to face its neighbor. A pea-sized bulge of white cotton sits where its eye should be. A slip of paper tied to its foot reads, “Ectopistes migratorius. Manitoba. 1884.” This is the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird in North America. When Europeans first landed on the continent, they encountered billions of the birds. By 1914 they were extinct.
That may be about to change. Today scientists are meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss a plan to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction. The technical challenges are immense, and the ethical questions are slippery. But as genetic technology races ahead, a scenario that’s hard to imagine is becoming harder to dismiss out of hand.
About 1,500 passenger pigeons inhabit museum collections. They are all that’s left of a species once perceived as a limitless resource. The birds were shipped in boxcars by the tons, sold as meat for 31 cents per dozen, and plucked for mattress feathers. But in a mere 25 years, the population shrank from billions to thousands as commercial hunters decimated nesting flocks. Martha, the last living bird, took her place under museum glass in 1914.
Ben Novak doesn’t believe the story should end there. The 26-year-old genetics student is convinced that new technology can bring the passenger pigeon back to life. “This whole idea that extinction is forever is just nonsense,” he says. Novak spent the last five years working to decipher the bird’s genes, and now he has put his graduate studies on hold to pursue a goal he’d once described in a junior high school fair presentation: de-extinction.
Novak is not alone in his mission. An organization called Revive and Restore is enlisting the support of preeminent scientists—and even the National Geographic Society, which is hosting the TEDx meeting on the topic today, to investigate putting the passenger pigeon back in the sky. The group has chosen Novak to spearhead the project.
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