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Biotech Earth Science

The Passenger Pigeon: A Century of Extinction 108

Posted by samzenpus
from the coming-soon dept.
An anonymous reader writes On September 1, 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon was found dead in her aviary at the Cincinnati Zoo. When the first European settlers arrived in North America at least one of every four birds on the continent was a passenger pigeon, making them the most numerous birds in North America, and perhaps in the world. From the article: "But extinction apparently doesn't ring with the finality it used to. Researchers are working to 'de-extinct' the bird. They got their hands on some of the 1,500 or so known passenger pigeon specimens and are hoping to resurrect the species through some Jurassic Park-like genetic engineering. Instead of using frog DNA to fill out the missing parts of a dinosaur's genetic code as in Michael Crichton's story, the real-life 'bring-back-the-passenger pigeon' researchers are using the bird's closest relative, the band-tailed pigeon.
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The Passenger Pigeon: A Century of Extinction

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  • ...before finally reconstructing a dodo, which is, after all, also a pigeon.
  • I'd guess bird DNA would be better – for both cases....

  • by tlambert (566799) on Monday September 01, 2014 @07:47AM (#47799573)

    I'm not understanding "missing DNA"... if they think there is "missing DNA",and they have 1,500 specimens, all less than 2-300 years old, they need to talk to J. Craig Venter, because they're doing it wrong.

    • Museum specimens were commonly preserved with formaldehyde, which damages DNA.
      • by tlambert (566799)

        Museum specimens were commonly preserved with formaldehyde, which damages DNA.

        The technique in question would use the DNA from a *lot* of cells. Even if all of them were damaged, they would not be damaged in precisely the same way, which is why the technique works: it's a statistical technique. Give 1500 full specimens with multiple sets of damage, they should, on average, get the full genome for the species, since that's a viable number of individuals to propagate the species.

        So again, unless something knocked out a specific chromosome in *all* the cells of *all* the specimens, th

        • by X0563511 (793323)

          But you're not just working around the damage, either... you're averaging traits. What you get out of this process might not actually be what you were trying to get? (as far as coloring, and such)

  • Ecosystem (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wjcofkc (964165) on Monday September 01, 2014 @07:53AM (#47799605)
    If the Passenger Pigeon has been extinct for this long, it's safe to say that ecosystems have adjusted to their demise. Let's not see what the consequences of re-introducing them are. There is no way to predict the effect. If they are planning and engineering these hybrids just to study their work in captivity, well, that is just as wrong.
    • Ecosystem (Score:4, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 01, 2014 @08:02AM (#47799639)

      You are obviously a shill for big airlines and don't want the re-introduction of free flights via passenger pigeon because it will eat into your lucrative flight slot monopoly revenue.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      The consequences would be that the ecosystem would revert to a more natural state. We don't need to have sabre tooth cats running around killing these things to keep their population in check - domestic housecats would do the job very nicely. The simple fact is, these birds were here in enormous numbers, basically a big part of the definition of the North American ecosystem, and we screwed it up. If we can fix it, we should. Think of the additional tax revenue that could be gained from selling hunting l
      • by Anonymous Coward

        The simple fact is, these birds were here in enormous numbers, basically a big part of the definition of the North American ecosystem, and we screwed it up.

        This is actually a great possibility to assess if the idea that extinction of a species have catastrophic ramifications on an ecosystem.
        By now it should be possible if removal of the passenger pigeon caused side effects that that harmed other parts of the ecosystem or if other parts of it just stepped in and filled the void.
        Perhaps the experiment isn't a cautious as one would like but it has happened nonetheless. There should be some noticeable, and possibly interesting, change in the pigeons predators and

      • Re:Ecosystem (Score:5, Informative)

        by careysub (976506) on Monday September 01, 2014 @09:50AM (#47800039)

        The consequences would be that the ecosystem would revert to a more natural state. We don't need to have sabre tooth cats running around killing these things to keep their population in check - domestic housecats would do the job very nicely. The simple fact is, these birds were here in enormous numbers, basically a big part of the definition of the North American ecosystem, and we screwed it up....

        The enormous numbers of the Passenger Pigeon actually suggest that they were the beneficiaries of an extreme environmental disruption that occurred a few centuries earlier: the sudden and dramatic disappearance on the large scale agricultural and horticultural societies of Native Americans when ~90% of the population died from successive onslaughts of pandemic disease brought by the arrival of populations from the Old World (Europeans and Africans).

        European observers only ever got a look at pre-pandemic North America along the east coast, and the evidence there is of stunning change in the ecology.

        Genetic studies of Passenger Pigeons [scientificamerican.com] have shown that the subabundance was a transient, new phenomenon. In the last million years the breeding population only averaged about 1/3 of a million, and sometimes as few as 50,000, and began a population upsurge 6,000 years ago. The enormous explosion to billions was much more recent than that.

        The ecosystem for the PP were forests of nut-bearing trees, which the super-population of PPs could be seen to be damaging in their locust-like swarming and foraging, an unsustainable situation. These forests were not "natural" though, they were managed for thousands of years by Native America horticulturists who encouraged the development of large dense stands of edible nut trees.

        When the Native American populations suddenly disappeared that left large stands of unexploited nut-food that allowed the PPs to break-out into the vast populations that were observed. Their habit of long distance migration in large groups was well suited for such an explosion, exploiting all of the nut-tree resources on North America.

        • Re:Ecosystem (Score:4, Interesting)

          by russotto (537200) on Monday September 01, 2014 @10:19AM (#47800195) Journal

          Their habit of long distance migration in large groups was well suited for such an explosion, exploiting all of the nut-tree resources on North America.

          Unfortunately for the passenger pigeon, their favorite American Chestnut is no longer a nut-bearing species for most of its former range, thanks to the chestnut blight. So before you can re-introduce the passenger pigeon, you need to restore the chestnut -- which horticulturists have been trying, with limited success, for decades.

          • So we finally restore the American Chestnut. Then passenger pigeons descend on the trees like locusts and decimate them.

            The passenger pigeons WERE locust-like in the era before their extinction. It was a real problem for people wanting to farm.

            • by nospam007 (722110) *

              "The passenger pigeons WERE locust-like in the era before their extinction. It was a real problem for people wanting to farm."

              Why? The shit was delivered automatically onto the fields instead of the farmer hauling it there.

              • by russotto (537200)

                Because if the things producing the shit are eating your crop, getting a bunch of shit in return isn't really a good deal. It's not like they'd drop a load right after seeding.

          • Re:Ecosystem (Score:4, Informative)

            by careysub (976506) on Monday September 01, 2014 @11:32AM (#47800711)

            Their habit of long distance migration in large groups was well suited for such an explosion, exploiting all of the nut-tree resources on North America.

            Unfortunately for the passenger pigeon, their favorite American Chestnut is no longer a nut-bearing species for most of its former range, thanks to the chestnut blight. So before you can re-introduce the passenger pigeon, you need to restore the chestnut -- which horticulturists have been trying, with limited success, for decades.

            You are correct that restoring the species successfully (assuming we can make viable breeding PPs) is a long shot. One of the problems is their colony-style breeding behavior. The aren't solitary nesters, but live and breed in large groups. Attempts to breed them in captivity failed.

            The collapse of the population to zero seems to have proceeded in phases (3, I count): loss of forest food sources from cutting, extermination efforts (hunting and simple pest-control killing) which capitalized on the dense groups that made easy pickings, but then after PP extermination was circumscribed, the population continued to collapse since they were below the natural breeding population size. In its last couple of decades efforts to save them were being made, but they were unsuccessful. The genetically documented population "bottleneck", when the breeding population dropped to 50,000, might have been a single colony.

            A similar situation occurred with the cheetah, which once dropped to fewer than a dozen individuals within the last 10,000 years. There is also evidence of humans bottlenecking with populations in the low thousands within the last 100,000 years.

        • by TeknoHog (164938)

          The enormous numbers of the Passenger Pigeon actually suggest that they were the beneficiaries of an extreme environmental disruption that occurred a few centuries earlier: the sudden and dramatic disappearance on the large scale agricultural and horticultural societies of Native Americans when ~90% of the population died from successive onslaughts of pandemic disease brought by the arrival of populations from the Old World (Europeans and Africans).

          Is that an African or a European pigeonocide?

      • We really miss the Mammoth! Resurrect the Mammoth too ASAP please!

      • by haruchai (17472)

        I'd like to see more bison in the wild and wouldn't that give the hunters hardons

    • Re:Ecosystem (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Tx (96709) on Monday September 01, 2014 @08:05AM (#47799653) Journal

      "If the Passenger Pigeon has been extinct for this long, it's safe to say that ecosystems have adjusted to their demise."
      If the ecosystems can adjust to their demise, then surely they could equally well adjust to their return?

      "Let's not see what the consequences of re-introducing them are."
      Why not? I'm curious.

      "There is no way to predict the effect."
      There 's no way to predict the effect of any given action or inaction. For all you know, reintroducing passenger pigeons could be the best thing ever to happen to the North American environment.

      "If they are planning and engineering these hybrids just to study their work in captivity, well, that is just as wrong."
      Why is it just as wrong? Something isn't true just because you say it is; try to provide some rationale behind the statement. You've stated concerns about re-introducing the critters to the wild, so surely studying them in captivity is the perfect solution.

      • by towermac (752159)

        "If the ecosystems can adjust to their demise, then surely they could equally well adjust to their return?"

        That ecosystem you speak of... Um; that's us.

        Just sayin.

        • Re:Ecosystem (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Rei (128717) on Monday September 01, 2014 @09:24AM (#47799907) Homepage

          There were humans living alongside the passenger pigeon for thousands of years before European settlers arrived.

          Anyway, this "readapting" of an ecosystem isn't necessarily a good thing. For example, the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet (the only parrot native to the eastern US) coincided with major spreading cockleburs in the US, as it was a major part of their diet. Are you a fan of cockleburs?

          • There were humans living alongside the passenger pigeon for thousands of years before European settlers arrived.

            Just curious - were there 330,000,000 humans living alongside the passenger pigeons before European settlers arrived?

            Didn't think so....

      • by wjcofkc (964165)
        If the ecosystems can adjust to their demise, then surely they could equally well adjust to their return?
        When a species goes extinct, the vacuum it leaves is filled by other species. When a new species is introduced, assuming it is successful, something else has to make way. Historically this is a bad thing. Have you not seen what's going on in Florida right now?

        Why not? I'm curious.
        Something isn't a good idea just because you are curious.

        There 's no way to predict the effect of any given action or in
    • by towermac (752159)

      I've been reading about them with all the articles these past few days.

      They would come in their billions. Let's not pretend any of us knows what that means, but an idea, is seeing a flock of thousands that disappear into the distance, and that keeps coming for 3 days. They would cover an area, thoroughly removing every single nut, acorn, bug, worm, seed; leaving inches of dung behind. Anywhere they roosted, thousands to single tree; it would take years for the ground plants to recover from the droppings. Fr

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Rei (128717)

        it would take years for the ground plants to recover

        Citation needed. Bird manure is one of the best natural fertilizers in existence. Have you seen what people charge for chicken manure? It's outrageous. Now, it's a concentrated enough fertilizer that you have to use it more like a chemical fertilizer than a soil suppliment - so it's possible that the pigeons would "nutrient burn" a location. But that's short term, in the long term that means leaving the area incredibly lush. And not to mention full of seed

        • Some bird manure is a good thing. It's very easy for there to be too much of a good thing. Like, say, the big manure lagoons around a large-scale hog farm. I doubt if an inch thick layer of bird manure is good for a field.

        • by towermac (752159)

          If you really needed a citation, there's a recent article on BBC and Wikipedia.

          But the historical accounts detail them breaking branches of trees, they would roost so thickly. Piling on each other's backs even. You don't have to be an expert in poop to realize that inches piled up overnight, or even days, will take a very long time to become a beautiful field of flowers again.

          Now, as this thread has filled out, I have learned some things, and maybe it's unlikely they would reach those numbers again if they

    • Re:Ecosystem (Score:4, Insightful)

      by FalcDot (1224920) on Monday September 01, 2014 @08:41AM (#47799741)

      Have you ever read what happened in Yellowstone when the wolves were reintroduced?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H... [wikipedia.org]

      Now, okay, the wolf is an apex predator who has a much bigger effect on the ecosystem than a pigeon. But I believe this is one of the best examples you can give that putting species back where they've gone extinct can have some very beneficial effects.

    • by ultranova (717540)

      If the Passenger Pigeon has been extinct for this long, it's safe to say that ecosystems have adjusted to their demise. Let's not see what the consequences of re-introducing them are.

      AFAIK there wasn't any dramatic changes when the PP went extinct, so whatever function they had, some other species took over - in engineering terms, the ecosystem switched to using Backup Pigeon System. If so, then re-introducing Passenger Pigeon is analogous to getting primary system back online, which is a good thing both b

  • I read as a child stories from 'James Fenimore Cooper', not sure if it was mentioned in one of the 'The Leatherstocking Tales' or another one.
    Anyway, a town prepared for the birds, they armed cannons with pellet ammunition. Cannons, not mere rifles! While the fighting in those stories already was tough, for a child, the massacre on the birds I never understood, until I read about other animal massacres ... baby seals got killed up into the late 1990s, unbelievable, elephants are still killed in the 10,000ds

  • If this happens, farmers will be delighted when a ten-million bird flock descends on the fields.
    • by Virtucon (127420)

      more like New Yorkers will be thrilled with 10 million new pigeons crapping everywhere.

      • More like New Yorkers will be thrilled when there's no lettuce or carrots because of what the pigeons did to the farmers' fields.

    • by Rei (128717)

      Passenger pigeons were not primarily a grain species, although they would eat grain when other preferred foods were in short supply. Part of the reasons the flocks increasingly turned to grain with time is due to the cutting and burning of many of their native forests to make room for farmland (and with an average lifespan in captivity of 15 years, probably half that in the wild, populations don't readjust right away). They were a migratory species, of course, but the habitat destruction was going on all ov

  • by cmdr_tofu (826352) on Monday September 01, 2014 @08:46AM (#47799755) Homepage

    I think it would make more sense to simply create a more bird-friendly environment (ie more sustainable development, no hunting, allow for return of wild forested spaces) and if there is a role for a passenger pigeon-like bird it will eventually be occupied by an existing bird species and those with passenger pigeon-like traits will be the most successful.

    The passenger pigeon was killed by
    1) overhunting - presumably, we can stop that, but we are doing the same thing to fish right now - what reason do we have to believe we would not immediate overhunt pigeons back to extinction?
    2) habitat loss - we haven't done anything to address this. If anything in the past 100 years we've made the problem worse. Development is both good and bad, but for preserving natural habitats, we have not really solved all problems (or arguably even prioritized) allowing development in a way which is sustainable in terms of natural resources and does not threaten wildlife habitats.

    Could passenger pigeons start over "from ground zero"? If they could be in a lab, I am very skeptical that such populations would survive.

    I imagine if Kang and Kodoss ate all the humans and reduced all human works to rubble and poisone, then genetically engineered a bunch of humans and left them on the planet and said "go repopulate". It just would not work.

    Birds are intelligent animals, require long developmental periods (with care of their already-able parents) and form complex social networks that allow them to thrive in adverse conditions. http://rstb.royalsocietypublis... [royalsocie...ishing.org] Passenger pigeons would migrate 1000s of miles depending on weather patterns, and used decision-making processes we have yet to understand.

    • by PPH (736903)

      overhunting

      Not so much of a problem anymore. People don't often hunt for sustenance anymore. Mostly for sport.

      habitat loss

      I don't know how similar passenger pigeons are to their modern relatives. But it would seem that they could easily adapt to urban life, given enough cars and statues to shit on. The problem here would be, which species would survive the competition for the good habitat? This could end up being another spotted owl vs barred owl story. Where the stronger species drives the weaker one into the worst habitat, like

      • by cmdr_tofu (826352)

        overhunting

        Not so much of a problem anymore. People don't often hunt for sustenance anymore. Mostly for sport.

        It wasn't sustenance hunting (at least not in the 19th century), but a mechanized industrialized hunting, processing and selling of passenger pigeons. Pretty much the same thing we are doing to the oceans. From Wikipedia "pigeon meat was commercialized as a cheap food for slaves and the poor in the 19th century, resulting in hunting on a massive and mechanized scale." ... "At a nesting site in Petoskey, Michigan in 1878, 50,000 birds were killed each day for nearly five months."

    • If birds were really smart, Chicken Run [wikipedia.org] would be non-fiction.

    • by davidwr (791652)

      I imagine if Kang and Kodoss ate all the humans

      See Drop Table People [xkcd.com]

      Oh you meant "Eat table people". My bad.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "On September 1, 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon was found dead in her aviary at the Cincinnati Zoo."

    And nobody back then suspected fowl play?

  • by joneil (677771) on Monday September 01, 2014 @08:51AM (#47799773)

    One thing almost always missing whenever the Passenger Pidgeon is talked about is how our pioneer ancestors considered them a major pest and threat.

        Old wood cuts and descriptions from a couple of centuries ago describe how a large flock of these birds would decend on a farm and inside a few hours completely eat all the food (grain), leaving a family to face certian starvation. Remember , back then, there are no food stamps, no food banks, no state welfare, etc. Starvation was very real and people did die of it.

        I am NOT excusing or apologizing or in any way, shape or form trying to justify what happened, but I am trying to point out that events in history, both good and bad, usually happens for a reason. Rightly or wrongly, our pioneer ancestors often looked upon the passenger pidgeon in almost the same way we look at the cockroach today. That is the major reason they were wiped out. The problem, as I see it, is history today portrays the extinction of the passenger pidgeon as the result of a bunch of people just killing for fun or no reason at all. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

        Along the same lines, wolves were wiped out because they were seen as a threat to livestock in many areas. Groundhogs and gophers killed because thier holes were dangerous for horses who stepped into them and broke legs. Buffalo where killed because they were a major food source for native americans during the Indian Wars. The list goes on and on. Again, not saying it was a good or just reason, it might of been a terrrible reason, a horrible reason, but there was still a reason these things happened.

    • So you're saying that we should instead be trying to re-introduce something a bit more innocuous, like smallpox or giant locusts or Dire Wolves?

      Makes sense to me. But I mostly like the idea (following) of re-introducing the Carolina Parakeet. Or Wooly Mammoths. I bet they'd love Alaska, and it would give certain people something new to hunt to distract them from the pursuit of dangerous activities, like running for president. Besides, why should Africa and Asia have all of the really dangerous large ma

      • We should try to reintroduce the giant sloths, which were driven to extinction by the earlier human settlers to North America.

  • The passenger pigeon is a blight on humanity. Bring back a bird worth having, like the Carolina parakeet.
  • Do we really want to bring back the prolific flying-rat in recorded history?

    I saw we make the urban pigeon join them instead.....

  • How big were these things?

  • Here's hoping they can get enough nuclear DNA that whatever "Franken-bird" they create will be 100% carrier pigeon, at least DNA-wise.

    As for the rest of the cell that starts the whole thing off, it will probably have to be a donor cell from a closely related bird. This probably means the result will have non-carrier-pigeon mitochondrial DNA.

    On a related topic, if scientists figure out how to do this with birds then they replicate the process with humans, using human nuclear DNA, a non-human donor cell, and

  • by musth (901919)

    Ain't technology great!

  • They were brought over from Europe.

    So the passenger pigeons were replaced by European pigeons.

    That's my understanding.

  • The species seems to have been susceptible to extinction from the get-go. Its not like humans wiped them out down to a last few flocks. People did over hunt them to be sure, but a species that required flock groups of tens to hundreds of thousands to propagate would seem to me to be living on borrowed time. Attempts to breed them in captivity failed because of the massive numbers that seem to be required. So this effort to reintroduce the population will require quite an effort, they will need a first ge

  • The Coen Brothers do an homage of Hitchcock perhaps.

  • The genocide of the native American Indian population was thought to have contributed to passenger pigeon's emergence as an outbreak species at populations which proved to be unsustainable. It is possible that during this time, the birds evolved their one egg per year, clustering and other behaviors which eventually contributed to their demise. One effect of the passenger pigeon's extinction is the spread of Lyme disease, another is the preservation of the American Bison. [greenprophet.com]
  • Was the pigeon a passenger or did the pigeon carry a passenger?

  • This has been talked about for ages. The reason it's never done is their habitat is gone. They lived in old growth oak forests and there's none left now.

    We can bring the species back and it might do ok in zoos, but they can't live in the wild any more - their wild is gone. We killed all the trees as well as all the birds.

    All this cloning talk, where's the common sense? Close an extinct born with no food supply or habitat? Right.

    Clone a mastodon? Right. What do you think can gestate a Mastadon? Not an elepha

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