Reversing Extinction: The Passenger Pigeon?

As cloning technologies improve, the odds of reversing extinction continue to grow. Reviving the passenger pigeon, extinct since 1914, now appears to be a distinct possibility. But a larger question remains, namely how will these “extinction clones” survive in the modern world?

If the goal is to make them zoo exhibits, then a few passenger pigeons will suffice. But if the goal is to reintroduce them to nature, scientists could be in for a rude awakening. Passenger pigeons once existed in massive flocks and traveled up and down the east coast of the United States. In the process, they destroyed forests, picked trees clean, and left behind miles of feces. Could modern forests endure such an onslaught?

Here’s more from Kelly Servick at Wired Science:

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…

(See the rest at Wired Science)

Breeding Ancient Animals?

In 1627, the last of the aurochs, which was the predecessor of domestic cattle, died in Poland’s Jaktorów Forest. Now, a group of scientists hope to, in a manner of speaking, bring the aurochs back from extinction. How is this possible?

The Aurochs

The aurochs once inhabited Europe, Asia, and North Africa. They were herbivores. Bulls stood from five to six feet tall while cows were slightly shorter. They sported large horns that curved in multiple directions. When fighting each other, they would apparently lock horns and attempt to push each other backward.

The aurochs were eventually domesticated into at least two separate subspecies: Zebu cattle in South Asia and the domestic cattle we know today.

The Nazi Breeding Experiments

In 1920, two brothers named Heinz and Lutz Heck were the directors of the Berlin and Munich zoos, respectively. For two decades, they attempted to recreate the aurochs using wild cattle from central and southern Europe. The idea was to genetically purify cattle to the form they held during the time of the so-called Aryan race.

The Luck brothers began cross-breeding strains of cattle. The resulting animal, now known as heck cattle, was a hardy breed who was considered at the time to be a resurrection of the aurochs. In truth, however, there were many differences between heck cattle and aurochs. Most of the heck cattle were destroyed at the end of World War II. However, about 2,000 still exist today.

“The Nazis wanted to recreate the aurochs to evoke the power of the folklores and legends of the Germanic peoples. Between the two wars there was thinking that you could selectively breed animals – and indeed people – for Aryan characteristics that were rooted in runes and folklore. Young men hunted these bulls as preparation for battle and leadership in war. Hunting was a very big part of what people like Goering did. This was something that was considered very manly to do.” ~ Derek Gow, Hitler has only got one bull (and it’s alive and well in the West Country)

The TaurOs Project

The TaurOs Project is mankind’s most recent attempt to, in effect, reengineer the aurochs. It’s a joint project between Stichting Taurus and several European universities. While back-breeding an actual aurochs is believed to be impossible, the Project hopes to create a form of cattle that is as close as possible to it.

The stated purpose of this project (and others like it) is to fill ecological niches. In other words, when mankind domesticated the aurochs, it supposedly left an empty niche in certain ecosystems. However, that niche can’t be filled by today’s domesticated cattle. Cattle have been bred to be docile and productive. They are, in effect, a creation of mankind rather than evolution. Hence, they may lack the wild traits needed to survive in nature.

The TaurOs Project hopes to create new breeds with these ancient wild traits. The theory is that original features of the aurochs are still present in certain breeds of cattle and can be brought together via crossbreeding and selective breeding. The resulting cattle would then be reintroduced into large rewilding reserves.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

These sorts of experiments, in our opinion, are at once exciting and frightening. The near recreation of extinct species is an intriguing idea. Who knows what species could ultimately be brought back from extinction?

On the other hand, the TaurOs Project and rewilding in general are strange, almost anti-human concepts. They seek to restore ecosystems to a pre-human state. In other words, the arrival of humans upset the pristine (and mythical) balance of nature and now we must seek to fix it.

“Lost in the mix is a very important question. What’s so great about ancient ecosystems anyway? In truth, there is very little, if any, scientific evidence that pre-human ecosystems were superior to the ones that we enjoy today. Many ecosystems do just fine with both native and non-native plants and animals. They’re just as productive and they contain just as many species.” ~ David Meyer, The Pleistocene Rewilding?

But scientists and conservationists remain driven to recreate historical ecosystems. And admittedly, we can understand some of the fascination. However, there is a curious irony to the whole thing.

“Nature doesn’t exist in a steady state. It’s always changing, always evolving. The only way to keep it from doing so is with lots of human interference. And if that’s the case, then what’s the point of returning to a pre-human ecosystem? Why not just let nature evolve on its own?” ~ David Meyer, The Pleistocene Rewilding?


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The Pleistocene Rewilding?

Some 13,000 years ago, gigantic animals roamed what is now the United States. Is it not enough to mourn the loss of these animals? Should we attempt to “resurrect” them via programs like the Pleistocene Rewilding?

What is the Pleistocene Rewilding?

The Pleistocene Rewilding concept was the brainchild of a geoscientist named Paul S. Martin. Martin is perhaps most famous for his “Overkill” theory. He believed that the first settlers in North America overhunted the existing megafauna, such as mammoths and mastodons, to extinction.

Martin went on to propose the idea of “rewilding” North America with Pleistocene proxy animals. For example, the American mastodon is obviously extinct. However, the Sumatran elephant, which is an extant relative of the mastodon, still lives in Indonesia. Thus, breeding populations of Sumatran elephants on American soil would supposedly help fill an ecological niche.

“…the future of North America’s reserved lands needs to become a broad and magnificent debate that attempts to deal with the heart of the problem: ever since the extinction of the megafauna 13,000 years ago, the continent has had a seriously unbalanced fauna.” ~ Tim Flannery, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples

Pretty cool huh? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be driving around the U.S. and stumble upon a family of elephants? Or Grant’s Zebra, playing the role of the Hagerman horse? Or even the Siberian tiger, in place of the American lion?

Rewilding: Pro-Animal…or Anti-Human?

Well, as you might expect, there’s a catch. In the August 18, 2005 edition of Nature, Josh Donlan and eleven other authors proposed the creation of “ecological history parks” which would “cover vast areas of economically depressed parts of the Great Plains.

And there’s the rub. If you’re going to import new megafauna to the U.S. as part of a crazy scheme to restore an ancient ecosystem, you need lots of land to do it. Also, all manmade structures should ideally be removed in order to support free migration. And barriers should be built to keep people out of the rewilding zone. Indeed, many of the scientists who support rewilding wish to implement it with as little human interaction as possible.

“It could be argued that taxa have an inherent moral right to continue evolving free of human intervention, or even that Earth as a whole has a right to demonstrate its fullest possible evolutionary potential. It could be argued that, as the species responsible for the extinction of so many taxa, humans have a corresponding responsibility to attempt their restoration when feasible.” ~ Paul S. Martin, Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America

But why stop at the Pleistocene epoch? Why not go further back in time? Well, at its core, rewilding is a strange, almost anti-human concept. It seeks to restore ecosystems to a pre-human or at least a pre-European state. In other words, the arrival of humans upset the pristine (and mythical) balance of nature and now we must seek to fix it.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Lost in the mix is a very important question. What’s so great about ancient ecosystems anyway? In truth, there is very little, if any, scientific evidence that pre-human ecosystems were superior to the ones that we enjoy today. Many ecosystems do just fine with both native and non-native plants and animals. They’re just as productive and they contain just as many species.

And yet, conservationists continue to seek the preservation or in the case of rewilding, the resurrection, of historical ecosystems. Part of this is practical. Ecosystem management requires some kind of baseline, something to shoot for. Otherwise, why manage it in the first place? The other part of it is blind faith. Many conservationists just know that historical ecosystems are desirable without a shred of proof to that effect.

All in all, the North American Pleistocene rewilding project is a fascinating idea. If private land owners want to lend their property to Pleistocene Parks, more power to them. However, they should know that such parks will be impossible to maintain (and here’s the ultimate irony) without human interference. Nature doesn’t exist in a steady state. It’s always changing, always evolving. The only way to keep it from doing so is with lots of human interference. And if that’s the case, then what’s the point of returning to a pre-human ecosystem? Why not just let nature evolve on its own?

“Nature is never in balance. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of balance. When an ecological system experiences a disturbance, whether it’s a forest fire or an ice storm or something else, it never comes back in its original form. Instead, the system evolves in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.” ~ David Meyer, The Mythical Balance of Nature


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The Mythical Balance of Nature?

The Balance of Nature theory states that an ecological system, if left to its own devices, will essentially self-correct. In other words, if nature gets out of whack, it’ll eventually fix itself. It’s a popular theory, believed by practically everyone…except for ecologists that is.

The Mythical Balance of Nature?

“This concept of natural equilibrium long ruled ecological research and governed the management of such natural resources as forests and fisheries. It led to the doctrine, popular among conservationists, that nature knows best and that human intervention in it is bad by definition.” ~ William K. Stevens, New Eye on Nature: The Real Constant Is Eternal Turmoil

Yes, it’s true. Nature is never in balance. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of balance. When an ecological system experiences a disturbance, whether it’s a forest fire or an ice storm or something else, it never comes back in its original form. Instead, the system evolves in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. And predators and prey, contrary to popular opinion, don’t maintain constant population levels relative to each other. Instead, their numbers vary wildly over time. Sometimes, predators drive prey to extinction. Other times, predators die off on their own accord.

The Origin of the Balance of Nature Theory?

The Balance of Nature theory is very old, tracing all the way back to Herodotus, who is often considered the first historian. However, it entered the scientific world in the 1950s thanks to the efforts of two brothers named Howard T. Odum and Eugene Odum (see The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts by documentarian Adam Curtis). The Odums viewed nature as a self-stabilizing, cybernetic system filled with nodes and feedback loops. If a disturbance occurred in nature, it would be recognized via feedback loops. Nature would then adjust itself to eliminate the disturbance.

Over the next few decades, Howard Odum collected data and modeled ecosystems as electronic networks filled with nodes and feedback loops. Eventually, he and Eugene took the idea of “nature as a system” and made it the basis of ecological studies. Unfortunately, their work was deeply flawed. The brothers ruthlessly simplified and cherry-picked the data to fit their predetermined models. But no one realized that at the time and their ideas became gospel.

The Failure of the Balance of Nature Models?

Later, a systems ecologist named George Van Dyne attempted to model a small piece of land as a complete ecosystem. He gathered tons of data and built a computer simulation, hoping to gain a better understanding of how nature self-stabilized. But as he gathered more and more data, he began to realize his model didn’t even begin to resemble the real world. In fact, he found nature to be extremely unstable and ultra-complex.

But while the scientific theory behind the Balance of Nature was no longer considered accurate, it remained widely believed by the greater public. Indeed, the mythical Balance of Nature theory continues onward today, driven largely by poorly trained educators, popular culture, New Age environmentalism, and ancient romanticism. Will that ever change?

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Let’s hope so. The Balance of Nature might seem like a romantic idea, but nothing could be further from the truth. It views nature in machine-like fashion. Plants, animals, insects, and everything else are mere nodes in a network, reacting to constant feedback loops. However, nature is far more complex and unstable than even our most sophisticated computer models. It’s wild, ever-changing, and full of surprises. It’s unpredictable and remains beyond our understanding. And that, at least from where we stand, is a far more romantic…and accurate…idea of nature.


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Christopher Columbus: Climate Change Villain?

Christopher Columbus, the great explorer who brought the Old and New Worlds together, has been lauded in some quarters as a hero while attacked in others as a villain. Now, climate researchers have weighed into the debate, suggesting that Columbus’s arrival in the Americas may have touched off the Little Ice Age. Was Christopher Columbus a “Climate Change Villain?”

Did Christopher Columbus cause the Little Ice Age?

The Little Ice Age was a period of global cooling “that lasted from about A.D. 1550 to about A.D. 1850 in Europe, North America, and Asia.” It affected both Hemispheres and led to colder temperatures as well as increased ice formation. The Little Ice Age was characterized by crop failures, famine, hypothermia, strange weather patterns and bread riots. How in the world could a single explorer cause all that?

Well, it’s a pretty roundabout path, according to geochemist Richard Nevle. Prior to Christopher Columbus, some 40-100 million people lived in the Americas. They periodically burned vast swathes of land in order to farm crops, leaving large charcoal deposits in their wake.

Then Christopher Columbus arrived. While his own voyages were harmless, the same cannot be said of those of his successors. Europeans quickly followed in Columbus’s path. They sailed to the New World and set about colonizing it. It’s estimated that ~90% of the indigenous population died from either war or disease during this period.

The devastation left far fewer people to care for crops. Charcoal deposits vanished and trees began to grow in formerly-cleared areas. This new flora absorbed as much as 2-17 billion metric tons of carbon-dioxide in the process. The reduced levels of this greenhouse gas left the atmosphere unable to trap as much heat as in the past. And thus, the planet cooled.

“We have a massive reforestation event that’s sequestering carbon … coincident with the European arrival.” ~ Richard Nevle, Stanford University

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

It should be noted that this reforestation theory is not a new one. And it’s not necessarily limited to the Americas either. For example, paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman has suggested in the past that the Black Death, which reduced Europe’s population from somewhere between 30-60%, reduced farming and thus, allowed for new tree growth.

In terms of evidence, Nevle and his team point to ice core samples from Antarctica. Samples corresponding to the Little Ice Age tend to have increasingly higher concentrations of carbon-13, which could be explained by the fact that tree leaves tend to absorb carbon-12. Also, the samples “suggest that levels of the greenhouse gas decreased by 6 to 10 parts per million between 1525 and the early 1600s.

“6 to 10 parts per million? Wow. That’s an extremely small change and, from what I understand, far too small to account for a significant geological event like the Little Ice Age. Plus, this data can be interpreted in other ways. For example, the oceans might’ve absorbed the carbon-dioxide, “perhaps in response to cooling induced by lower solar activity and increased aerosols due to volcanoes.”

To be fair, Nevle is on record stating that reforestation in the Americas was not the only factor that led to the Little Ice Age. But he does consider it a significant one. And the idea that changes in land-use might foster long-term climate change is an intriguing and potentially viable concept.

“…change and variability in land use by humans and the resulting alterations in surface features are major but poorly recognized drivers of long-term global climate patterns … these spatially heterogeneous land use effects may be at least as important in altering the weather as changes in climate patterns associated with greenhouse gases.” ~ Roger Pielke Sr.

Still, the fact remains that a carbon-dioxide reduction of just 6-10 parts per million is far too small to account for the resulting change in temperatures associated with the Little Ice Age. At the same time, there are plenty of other natural variables out there that seem far more likely, namely orbital cycles, reduced solar activity, increased volcanic or cometary fragment activity, inherent variability of climate, and/or a slowing of thermohaline circulation. It’s even possible that it was caused by natural forces we don’t yet understand.

Future evidence could change things. But for the moment, I think it’s safe to say that Christopher Columbus and the explorers that followed him were most likely not a major factor in bringing about the Little Ice Age.

The Yellowstone Conspiracy?

Yellowstone National Park is one of the most famous parks in the world. It covers almost 3,500 miles of lakes, canyons, rivers, and mountains. But underneath the idyllic scenery lies a cold, hard truth. Yellowstone has been in danger since its establishment…from the very people designated to protect it.

The (Mis)management of Yellowstone?

Yellowstone is the world’s oldest national park. It was created on March 1, 1872 when Ulysses S. Grant signed its existence into law. Early visitors such as John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt praised the Park’s management of the wild land. But by 1934, a sinister truth began to emerge. Yellowstone had not been preserved at all. In fact, the very people managing it had driven it straight into the ground.

“It is probable that white-tailed deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, and possibly wolverine and fisher are gone from the Yellowstone fauna. Add the grizzly to this list, and you have the carnivore situation at Rocky Mountain.” – Fauna of the National Parks of the United States, 1934

How did something that seemed so right go so wrong? The whole sordid tale was told by the brilliant author Michael Crichton in a speech entitled: Fear and Complexity and Environmental Management in the 21st Century.

What went wrong at Yellowstone?

The basics go something like this. During the 1890s, Park rangers believed that elk were close to extinction. They began quietly feeding the elk and encouraging population growth. By 1915, officials began to notice that other animal populations, such as antelope and deer, were in decline. Convinced that predators were to blame, rangers began to illegally hunt the wolf, cougar, and coyote. They succeeded in eliminating the wolf and cougar populations and were well on their way to doing the same thing with the coyote population when the truth of their activities came out.

Soon after, studies showed that the problem wasn’t an abundance of predators. Rather, it was an explosion in the elk population. The elk ate heavily. With less food to eat, animals such as the antelope and deer died or fled their homes. Overgrazing also reduced Yellowstone’s trees, nearly wiping out aspens and willows. Unable to make dams, beavers disappeared. Without the dams, the meadows dried, causing even more animals to disappear.

The oversized elk population was a massive problem with far-reaching side effects no one had ever envisioned. So, how did the National Park Service respond?

“Pretty soon the park service initiated a PR campaign to prove that excessive numbers of elk were not responsible for the park’s problems, even though they were. This campaign went on for a decade, during which time the bighorn sheep virtually disappeared.” ~ Michael Crichton

“Simplistic, Cause-and-Effect Thinking”

The National Park Service’s attempts to engineer Yellowstone didn’t end with the elk. For example, in the 1970’s, rangers began to move grizzly bears away from publicly-accessible areas in order to reduce lawsuit risk. Quickly, grizzlies became an endangered species. These sorts of manipulations continue today, with officials treating Yellowstone like some kind of giant experiment in scientific management.

While the National Park Service acted illegally and in secrecy, it didn’t knowingly set out to cause irreparable damage. Still, its good intentions led it to commit nothing less than an environmental disaster. In his speech, Crichton argues that the Yellowstone problem developed due to a reliance on “simplistic, cause-and-effect thinking.”

“So, in conclusion: What happened at Yellowstone? I would say, somebody really believed the world operated like this schematic diagram. And they acted on that belief. Because the diagram implies that things are simple: Kill the wolves, and save the elk. Move the grizzlies, and avoid the lawyers. And on, and on. It’s this simplistic, cause-and-effect thinking that must go.” ~ Michael Crichton

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Yellowstone is a giant slice of land, filled with all kinds of life and all sorts of interlocking factors that escape even our current level of understanding. I would argue that it’s far too complex to ever be “managed” by any single person or group of people. Unfortunately, this isn’t always apparent since actions taken today may not yield unintended consequences for years, decades, or even centuries. Hopefully however, it is a lesson that the National Park Service will someday take to heart.


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