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?


Guerrilla Explorer’s Man vs. Nature Coverage

The Adams and Eves…of Domesticated Cows?

The history of cattle appears to be reaching a turning point. Did you know that quite possibly every single cow in the world (1.3 billion!) is related to a small group of just 80 domesticated cows who lived about 10,500 years ago?

History of Cattle – The Adams and Eves of Domesticated Cows?

If not for ancient Turkish farmers, cows might’ve never achieved the population levels they enjoy today. Here’s more on the strange history of cattle from Oxford Journals:

“The management and subsequent domestication of these few wild cattle over some centuries could have been carried out by a small sized human group, like in a couple of small Neolithic villages. Importantly, the two sites showing the earliest signs of wild aurochs domestication – Dja´de and Çayönü – are less than 250 km apart. The closeness of these sites permits local exchange of wild / early domestic cattle management skills, and possibly the cattle themselves, and adds support to the hypothesis of a restricted origin of taurine cattle in the Levant.” ~ Ruth Bollongino, Joachim Burger, Adam Powell, Marjan Mashkour, Jean-Denis Vigne, Mark G. Thomas

And here’s even more on the history of cattle from io9:

They discovered that the differences between these ancient DNA sequences and those of modern cattle were so minute that the only way to explain them would be if the original cattle population was extremely small, with about 80 cattle the most likely number. As the researchers explain in Molecular Biology and Evolution, since the domestication process was spread out over a thousand or so years, that’s the equivalent of only adding two new cattle each generation.

That’s a recipe for astoundingly low genetic diversity — and yet it seems that pretty much every living cow can claim ancestry to those eighty cows and no others. It’s a testament to how skilled ancient humans must have been at breeding cattle that the population survived and thrived the way it did, as these cows were effectively domesticated into an instant population bottleneck…

(See io9 for more on the history of cattle)

The Key to Immortality?

Flatworms have the ability to regenerate seemingly forever. Could they hold the key to human immortality?

Do Flatworms hold the Keys to Immortality?

Here’s more on flatworms and immortality from The Telegraph:

Experts from Nottingham University managed to create a colony of more than 20,000 flatworms from one original by chopping it into pieces and observing each section grow into a new complete worm…

“Our data satisfy one of the predictions about what it would take for an animal to be potentially immortal,” Aziz Aboobaker, who led the research. “The next goals for us are to understand the mechanisms in more detail and to understand more about how you evolve an immortal animal.”…

(See Flatworms could hold key to immortality for the rest)

Return…from Extinction!

The latest news from Siberia is that Russian scientists appear to have grown an extinct plant called the narrow-leafed campion using 31,800 year-old seeds buried by ancient squirrels.

An Extinct Plant…Brought back to Life?

The reviving of the Narrow-Leafed Campion is just the latest in a series of ancient genetic breakthroughs, including the sequencing of Neanderthal DNA. Here’s more on this reviving of an extinct plant from The New York Times:

Living plants have been generated from the fruit of a little arctic flower, the narrow-leafed campion, that died 32,000 years ago, a team of Russian scientists reports. The fruit was stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of northeastern Siberia and lay permanently frozen until excavated by scientists a few years ago.

This would be the oldest plant by far that has ever been grown from ancient tissue. The present record is held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2,000 years old that was recovered from the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel.

Seeds and certain cells can last a long term under the right conditions, but many claims of extreme longevity have failed on closer examination, and biologists are likely to greet this claim, too, with reserve until it can be independently confirmed…

(See The New York Times for the rest on the reviving of this extinct plant)

The Doomsday Seed Vault?

Just 810 miles from the North Pole lies one of the strangest and and most secure facilities in the entire world…a global seed bank of epic proportions. Could it one day save the Earth? Or is it at the center of a sinister conspiracy to gain control of the world’s food production?

The  Svalbard Global Seed Bank Conspiracy?

In 1984, the Nordic Gene Bank entered an abandoned coal mine on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, which is located in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago. Inside the mine, they secured frozen seeds of various Nordic plants. The location was chosen due to a lack of tectonic activity in the area as well as the permafrost.

By 2006, after many years of collecting and depositing seed samples, the Seed Bank decided it needed a new location to store its growing treasure chest. This facility, called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, opened in 2008.

This seed bank cost $9 million to construct and is located within a sandstone mountain. At the present time, no research takes place within its walls. It’s just a vault, designed to duplicate existing seed banks from around the world. That way, if a regional seed bank is ruined via natural disaster, war, or in some other manner, it can be easily replenished.

Numerous high-security technologies protect the Vault from temperature fluctuations, changes in the sea level, and even terrorist attacks. It currently holds somewhere around 1.5 million seed samples with capacity to hold an additional 3 million samples. These seeds could last within the facility for several centuries, maybe even millennia.

Why do we need a Doomsday Seed Bank?

Collecting and preserving seeds has taken on increased importance these days, at least in the eyes of government officials and scientists. Specifically, fears over things like climate change, epidemics, and nuclear war, in the view of some, “creates the need for an inaccessible ark.”

“Seed saving and its role in preserving biodiversity is of utmost importance. We are in an era called the Holocene extinction, which is notable for its decline in biodiversity.” ~ Dornith Doherty, Photographer of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Dr. Wolfgang Stuppy, a seed morphologist, agrees.

“We are essentially up against a deadline to collect the seeds of plant species before they go extinct. The current worldwide economic crisis makes it difficult to raise the funds necessary for this kind of work.” ~ Dr. Wolfgang Stuppy

The Dark Side of the Doomsday Seed Bank?

However, there is a little known dark side to this story. The Vault is financially backed by a mix of governmental organizations and large corporations and foundations such as Monsanto Corporation, Syngenta Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Gates Foundation. While these groups claim to have pure motives, others are not so sure.

“The whole research agenda of countries like India is driven by what is dictated by outside agencies with vested interests; they are using state-of-the-art laboratories and trained scientists to work toward the production and distribution of genetically modified seeds.” ~ Sunita Rao, Adjunct Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment

Many researchers believe that Monsanto and other companies plan to use the Vault to eventually extend their control over the world’s food supply. And internal squabbles within the industry seem to bear this out. By gathering seeds from around the world and implementing international treaties, these companies will be able to conduct proprietary research with the purpose of creating and producing IP-protected, genetically modified seeds for all areas on earth. As you might expect, the money behind these seeds is immense.

“Monsanto, the corporate food giant with influence in the last three presidential administrations (including the current one), owns genes that can be found in 90% of America’s soy. Wind inevitably blows the seeds from Monsanto crops to those owned by smaller farmers, after which the company claims intellectual property rights over the land and forbids farmers to save seeds – a traditional agricultural practice – and even sues farmers for merely “encouraging” the violation of these patents.” ~ Anthony Gregory, Sustainable Living, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Urban Farms

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Even putting that aside, I have to admit I’m still highly skeptical of the so-called Doomsday Seed Vault at Svalbard. If one wants to protect plants from going extinct, I can think of no worse way to do that than to turn over control of regional seed banks to a single, centralized fortress. While I understand the need for redundant facilities, Svalbard seems ill suited to the task.

A series of regional, independent banks freely trading samples with each other seems far more likely to help unique seeds survive disasters. In the end, the best way to ensure the future of the earth’s seeds is not to restrict them to one place…it’s to set them free and to spread them as far as possible.