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Biotech Earth Science

The Passenger Pigeon: A Century of Extinction 108

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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  • by raymorris ( 2726007 ) on Monday September 01, 2014 @09:07AM (#47799657) Journal

    You may recall Netscape's user-agent string was Mozilla. Within the company called Netscape, the browser was called Mozilla. The full name of Firefox is Mozilla Firefox.

    Netscape was rebranded Mozilla Seamonkey. As Mozilla Seamonkey gained more and more features, some of the Mozilla (aka Netscape browser) people decided to make a version with some of the features removed to make it more streamlined, a lightweight version of the Mozilla browser, previously known as Netscape. They called this lightweight version of Netscape Firefox. *

    *First they tried calling it Phoenix, which is an animal which is resurrected from it's own ashes. Somebody already had that name. A Phoenix is also known as a Firebird, but somebody already had that name, so they ended up with Firefox.

  • Re:Ecosystem (Score:5, Informative)

    by careysub ( 976506 ) on Monday September 01, 2014 @10:50AM (#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 [] 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, Informative)

    by careysub ( 976506 ) on Monday September 01, 2014 @12:32PM (#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.

People who go to conferences are the ones who shouldn't.