The Second Cooing: Raising Passenger Pigeons from the Dead


Philip Bethge in Spiegel Online:

The eye sockets of the slender pigeon are filled with light-colored cotton. Its neck feathers shimmer in iridescent colors, and it has a russet chest and a slate-blue head. The yellowed paper tag attached to its left leg reads: “Coll. by Capt. Frank Goss, Neosho Falls, Kansas, July 4, 1875.”

Ben Novak lifts up the stuffed bird to study the tag more closely. Then he returns the pigeon to a group of 11 other specimens of the same species, which are resting on their backs in a wooden drawer. “It's easy to see just dead birds,” he says. “But imagine them alive, billions of birds. What would they look like in the sky?”

Novak has an audacious plan. He wants to resurrect the passenger pigeon. Vast numbers of the birds once filled the skies over North America. But in 1914 Martha, the last of her species, died in a zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Novak, a researcher with the Long Now Foundation, a California think tank, wants to give the species a second chance. At the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, Novak used a scalpel to slice small tissue samples from the red-painted toes of the passenger pigeons kept there. He hopes to isolate tiny bits of DNA from the samples and use them to assemble an entire genotype. His ultimate goal is the resurrection of the passenger pigeon.

“It should be possible to reconstruct the entire genome of the passenger pigeon,” says Novak. “The species is one of the most promising candidates for reintroducing an extinct species.”

The art of breathing new life into long-extinct species is in vogue among biologists. The Tasmanian devil, the wooly rhinoceros, the mammoth, the dodo and the gastric-breeding frog are all on the list of candidates for revival. To recover the genetic makeup of species, experts cut pieces of tissue from stuffed zoological rarities, pulverize pieces of bone or search in the freezers of their institutions for samples of extinct animals.