Disclaimer: This article does not discuss the ethics of de-extinction. It is only meant to spark interest and debate about potential candidates.
In the natural world, there is no event more tragic than the extinction of an entire species. Since the 1960s more than 700 species of plants and animals have disappeared from the Earth, thought to never be seen again. Whereas extinction used to be finality, now there may be hope to one day see these creatures again through the process of de-extinction. De-extinction is the generation of an organism that is extinct. This process can be done through cloning, genome editing, and/or selective breeding.
While some of the most talked about animals to be brought back are large mammals such as the Tasmanian Tiger or Wooly Mammoth, some of the most realistic possibile candidates are birds. Here are the top seven birds that could potentially be brought back from extinction.
7. Great Auk
This large, penguin-like bird could be once found in the waters of the north Atlantic from the shores of Canada all the way to Western Europe. Humans are almost entirely to blame for the extinction of the Great Auk as it was hunted for its meat and down that was used for pillows. By the middle of the 16th century, this bird had been all but wiped out from the coasts of Europe. In 1835 the last colony of Great Auks was killed in Iceland on the island of Eldey for their skins, desired by museums. 78 Great Auk skins and 24 complete skeletons still exist, and cells could potentially be used for DNA extraction.
6. Labrador Duck
This sea duck was a migratory North American bird species that wintered off the coasts of New England and bred in Labrador and Quebec, Canada. This particular species seems to have already been rare at the time that Europeans arrived in the new world. As a result, not much is known about their life and habits. It is thought that harvesting of Labrador Duck eggs may have been a strong contributor to their eventual disappearance late in the 19th century. Their extinction is recent enough that specimens of this bird still exist and DNA could potentially be gathered.
5. Dusky Seaside Sparrow
The Dusky Seaside Sparrow was a Seaside Sparrow subspecies that lived in the Merritt Island salt marshes in Florida. It was known for its dark plumage and distinct song that separated it from other seaside sparrows. The cause of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow’s extinction is entirely due to habitat destruction. Merritt Island was flooded to reduce the mosquito population around the Kennedy Space Center. Later on, the marshes were drained due to highway construction. These two events destroyed much of the nesting habitat of these birds and led to their demise. The last known Dusky Seaside Sparrow died in 1987, but other subspecies still remain and could hold latent genes that could bring this bird back, or at the very least, a bird that has the same dark plumage.
4. Ivory-billed Woodpecker
One of the most legendary birds on this list, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is presumed extinct. However, sightings in the past few decades lend credence to the idea that some individuals could still be alive somewhere deep in the wilderness. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is/was one of the largest woodpeckers in the world and possibly went extinct due to habitat destruction. The last accepted sighting was in 1944 in Louisiana. It is something of an icon as birders and ornithologists continue to mount expeditions to capture proof of its continued existence. A better option could potentially be cloning, as its extinction was in the last century and relatives of the species, including the Pileated Woodpecker, still thrive.
3. Dodo Bird
The Dodo Bird has become synonymous with extinction. Living on the island of Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar, the Dodo was a large flightless bird that had no natural predators. This became problematic when sailors arrived and not only hunted the Dodo for food, but also brought invasive animals with them that killed Dodos and ravaged their nests. This bird went extinct sometime in the late 1600s and reports of their actual extinction date vary. With bones and some soft tissue samples remaining, the Dodo could someday make a reappearance if they are chosen as a de-extinction candidate.
2. Carolina Parakeet
Large flocks of Carolina Parakeets used to inhabit North America from New England all the way to the Mississippi River. These brightly colored and noisy birds moved and socialized in large flocks which may have partially led to their downfall. Carolina Parakeets were hunted for the feather trade and also to eliminate their numbers as they were considered to be a pest to farmers. Their social behavior made it all too easy to destroy entire flocks of birds at a time. Other causes of their extinction included habitat loss and disease. These birds essentially disappeared from the wild by the year 1904, and the last captive specimen died in 1918. There is hope, however, as DNA has been extracted from remaining skins and skeletons.
1. Passenger Pigeon
One of the most famous extinct animal species; the Passenger Pigeon, quite literally went from millions to none. At their peak, these members of the dove family spread from the Rocky Mountains, east to the Atlantic Coast. The chief cause of their rapid extinction was large-scale hunting as well as land clearing. Much like the Carolina Parakeet, the social flocking behavior of the Passenger Pigeon made it an easy target for hunters. The last Passenger Pigeon (named Martha) died in captivity in 1914. Since then, the Passenger Pigeon has become the poster-child for ecological preservation as it is proof that a species that was once extremely numerous is not impervious to extinction. It is possible that it could also be one of the flagship species to be cloned as enough DNA may exist to recreate the bird’s genome, and it has close relatives that are still alive and well (for now).
While the disappearance of any species is truly disheartening, there is hope that they may be brought back into existence. With scientists working on ways to synthesize genetic material, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before we will be able to see some of these birds in the flesh for the first time this century.
All photos public domain except for “Dusky Seaside Sparrow” by Wildlife Management Areas. https://flic.kr/p/N7Beef