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The Ultimate Tragedy - Whole-Scale Ecosystem Collapse Threatens De-extinction

Updated: Feb 23

  • If we do not solve our underlying environmental issues, species may face “Re-Extinction”

  • A case study of the Passenger Pigeon

Passenger Pigeons
The Passenger Pigeon, 1907 (Mershon, editor).

De-extinction is becoming a fertile realm of scientific exploration and even attracting pockets of major funding. However, the scale of the extinction crisis is likely to usurp even these radical explorations. Approximately 150 species go extinct each day. No biotechnology or scientific revolution can keep pace with that realization. Complicating the issue, even more, is that most of the species that are going extinct are not even known to science and thus may never be known.

By now, you may have heard scientists are trying to revive now-extinct species, such as the passenger pigeon. There are plenty of resources (including this one) on this topic for you to research, but here, we will examine what may come next.

Pheasant Pigeon
Otidiphaps insularis = Otidiphaps nobilis insularis, Pheasant Pigeon

Otidiphaps insularis = Otidiphaps nobilis insularis, Pheasant Pigeon

Occasionally, scientists re-discover species they thought were extinct, as in the recent case of the black-naped pheasant-pigeon, where scientists snapped a photo of it for the first time in Papua New Guinea since 1882. Unfortunately for the passenger pigeon, it will not be so lucky.

There isn’t general hope in science that de-extinction will result in genetically diverse swarming flocks of passenger pigeons, but is this true? That may not be something that can be pre-determined once animals are released into the wild. After all, passenger pigeons' life history is that of high numbers. For distinct reasons, huge flocks benefit the bird. Therefore, if this bird is brought back and establishes any meaningful population, will it then edge towards a large one? If it doesn’t achieve a sizeable population, with meaningful ecological impact, the passenger pigeon, and “de-extinct” individuals like it may serve as little more than showpieces. Which option is better or worse?

The earth’s ecosystems are declining at an alarming rate. Prior to its extinction, the passenger pigeon’s native habitat of the Appalachian Mountains still had meaningful populations of chestnut and hemlock trees. Both of these trees are now functionally extinct in their native range, and both likely had sizeable impacts on the pigeon flock. These are simply two examples of degradation that would influence the passenger pigeon. The laundry list is extensive, including species invasions, various bird flu strains due to the poultry industry, and loss of habitat.

Credit: Huub Veldhuijzen van Zanten/Naturalis Biodiversity Center

Now, let’s imagine science actually gets good at bringing species back from extinction. Post-de-extinction, when the excitement and amazement wear thin, when a new species revival garners similar fanfare as a new incremental iPhone release, what then? Will there be farmers incensed by synthetic ravaging pigeons decimating crops? Passenger pigeons once made up to 40% of all birds in the United States. That sort of impact may be unwelcome to humans, and destructive to the practice.

Most might characterize these as good problems, although to some, they would become quite personal issues. Think of it, backyard fruit tree gardeners and commercial orchardists fight tooth and nail to keep birds from decimating their crops. They use netting, scarecrows, and various other means to keep them away. Can a de-extinction turn into an invasion? Sure, it is possible. And, because these individuals are not pure passenger pigeons, yet a hybrid of various species, they may exhibit new and unexpected behaviors. There is also the concern of de-extinct animals mating with other, even threatened species, thereby destroying another species by introducing it.

Passenger pigeons were known to farmers as a scourge. They did not simply feed on the random apple here or there. They decimated grain crops, crops responsible for a great bulk of our caloric intake. Given the issues of climate change, we may struggle to feed our own population, let alone species that have been extinct for a century.

Ecosystem Extinction

Unfortunately, science can no longer simply concern itself with species extinctions. The world is facing the extinction of entire ecosystems, at the very least their ability to function as they should. The coral reefs are a good example of this potential danger. Given the combined issues of rising sea temperatures bleaching corals, coral diseases and degraded water quality decimating entire regions of coral, and the persistent acidification of our oceans melting away their skeletons, the future for corals is dire indeed. As such, it is entirely possible that by the time woolly mammoths tumble off the assembly line, their habitat would have been decimated, making it one of the loneliest and most unfit individuals in the world.

In this pursuit of phantom ecology, where scientists seek to synthesize new species and ecosystems, when this has been achieved, when the mammoths, Carolina parakeets, thylacines, and passenger pigeons are waiting for release in their cages, we may just find that we are too late. That the ecosystems they were to be returned to, were already burned to ashes. As in a heart-breaking script, the movie lead, in this case, the pigeon, may have been on a marathon redemption tour, and beat impossible odds, only to find itself ultimately, and finally doomed, in a state even worse than extinction. Re-extinction due to habitat extinction.

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