An Exciting New Frontier - Editorial

The nonprofit Long Now Foundation is exploring the possibility of bringing extinct species back to life. It’s actually more than exploring the possibility; it has a plan and it is looking for a place to try it out.

Stewart Brand, founder of the Long Now Foundation’s Revive and Restore project, was on Martha’s Vineyard in April with executive director Ryan Phelan to gauge community interest in attempting to restore a population of heath hens.

The story of the heath hen is all too familiar. It was common on the East Coast until hunters all but killed them off. A population survived on the island and despite attempts to protect them—a large sanctuary was preserved in the middle of the island—the population was not able to sustain itself. The last bird was sighted in 1933.

The way “de-extinction” would work, Mr. Phelan told the Vineyard Gazette, is that DNA obtained from a museum specimen would be inserted into developing embryos of chickens or a similar bird, such as the praire chicken. The embryos would then grow into heath hens instead of chickens. Chickens, Mr. Phelan said, are a good choice because a great deal is already known about their genetic makeup.

It might sound like wacky science (the woolly mammoth is apparently also on the list of possible de-extinctions as is the passenger pigeon) but Mr. Phelan is quite thoughtful about the possibility. For example, he points out that consideration must be given to possible impacts on the ecosystem. What birds might have moved into the ecological niche the heath hen vacated?

On a lighter note, Mr. Brand reflected that a new population of heath hens would add quite an element of interest to the Christmas bird count.

The Long Now Foundation’s work has serious implications more than anything else. It is exciting in a world in which extinctions are all too common but an abundance of caution is called for. Scientists could bring back the heath hen, but do we really want to bring back the woolly mammoth?

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