Friday, May 19, 2023

PBS Terra on de-extinction for Endangered Species Day

Happy Endangered Species Day! I'm taking a different tack on today's celebration by following up on a note to myself in 'SNL' shoots down the Chinese 'spy balloon' in its cold open and Weekend Update: "I'm glad to see de-extinction back in the news, which means I'll have to write about it." PBS Terra's "Far Out" series made that easy for me by uploading Why Scientists Want to Resurrect Extinct Species yesterday. I can't resist an attempt to make science fiction into science fact as a topic.

From the woolly mammoth to the passenger pigeon, extinct species once maintained the balance of the earth’s delicate ecosystems. But human interference has resulted in dramatic loss of biodiversity. Can science restore what has been lost? In this episode of Far Out, we dig into ‘de-extinction’ as geneticists and molecular biologists attempt to bring back species to restore the health of the planet.
While I've written about several times about mammoth de-extinction and mentioned Tasmanian wolves as a candidate before, I've discussed the passenger pigeon as a candidate for de-extinction twice before and was critical of the idea.
Swain points out two obvious flaw[s] in the headline example from the talk, reviving the passenger pigeon. That's a species that is well-known for only reproducing in large flocks. A single couple will not be enough. Instead,...there will have to be many thousands of them. I've even read estimates that it may take colonies of at least a million to induce the bird to breed. Also, the environment that supported these birds will have to be re-created if it's too degraded and fragmented. That's a lot of time, energy, and money to make this project succeed.
I repeated the first concern in KPBS on de-extinction.
[S]omeone finally presented a reason for bringing back passenger pigeons beyond "it's cool" and assuaging guilt over its extinction, one that helps organisms other than humans. Now they'll just have to produce a million birds within the lifetime of the first one, so the population can sustain itself in the wild. Passenger pigeons were not California Condors, which can go from 22 to more than 400 in three decades. They required huge flocks to induce them to breed. That's a major hurdle I don't think the techno-optimists have considered yet.
I still think so. Maybe the genetically engineered hybrid of the band-tailed pigeon and the passenger pigeon won't have the same need for a large flock to breed as the extinct species seemed to require, although that would be a characteristic that would demonstrate that these wouldn't really be passenger pigeons. If so, it might be worth doing, especially since the experts seem to think the eastern hardwood forest is not as far gone as I thought nearly a decade ago.

Speaking of a decade ago and de-extinction, I wrote Jurassic Park 20 years later and other paleontology news a decade ago. That might make a good topic for a Sunday entertainment feature, although I have something else planned this weekend. In the meantime, I'm not done with biodiversity as tomorrow is World Bee Day and Monday is International Day for Biological Diversity. I'm tempted to recycle 'Prehistoric Planet' previews explore extinct biodiversity on International Day for Biological Diversity with the trailer for season 2. Stay tuned.

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