Easter is just around the corner. That means Christians everywhere will soon be shovelling down kilograms of chocolate in commemoration of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and singular resurrection three days later.
But such miracles are not confined to the Bible. Mankind may be doing its utmost to eliminate all other forms of life, but occasionally species are more tenacious than we give them credit for, making a return long after we think they’re gone forever. Sometimes, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum, life just finds a way.
#1 The Lord Howe Island Stick Insect clung to a tiny rock in the ocean
It usually doesn’t take very much to send an island species to extinction. Having evolved away from predation by land-dwelling mammals, they’re usually about as defenceless as Zanzibar in their short-lived war against Britain.
Take Lord Howe Island, a 15km2 volcanic remnant jutting out from the Tasman Sea. In 1918, the SS Makambo ran aground near the island, allowing a consignment of black rats to spill into the natural ecosystem. Their effect on local bird species was immediate and devastating: within a decade, we farewelled the vinous-tinted thrush, robust white-eye, Lord Howe starling, Lord Howe fantail, and Lord Howe Gerygone.
Even the island’s trademark terrifying arthropod, the Lord Howe Island stick insect, couldn’t cope with the insurgence. Within two years, the island’s entire population had been wiped clean; yet another species was now extinct. End of story.
But not quite! The Lord Howe Island Stick Insect was made of sterner stuff than that. Twenty kilometres north-east of the main island you’ll find a tiny stack of volcanic rock called Ball’s Pyramid. It’s so small that nobody really bothered with it, except to laugh derisively at the rock-climbers who kept failing to reach the summit.
During the 1960s, a few climbers reported coming across dead stick insects, but these remained quiet rumours until 2001, when two Australian scientists finally mounted an expedition to Ball’s Pyramid. They discovered a single melaleuca bush growing out of a crack in the cliff-face. In a patch of debris beneath the tree were 24 Lord Howe Island stick insects, no more and no less. The last in the world.
The scientists were allowed to bring back exactly four stick insects for an eleventh-hour captive breeding programme, and the Melbourne Zoo now hosts a captive population in the thousands.
#2 The Bermuda Petrel should have died with the dodo
Imagine setting foot on an island and stumbling upon a real-life dodo, just standing there and being all dopey-looking. Now you have some idea what Robert Murphy and Louis Mowbray must have felt in 1951 when they visited a few small islets in Castle Harbour, Bermuda and rediscovered the Bermuda Petrel.
This species of seabird, also known as a cahow, was last spotted in the year 1620, back when the dodo was still gallivanting around Mauritius. All the way back then, the Bermuda petrel population had been devastated by poaching and predation from introduced mammals. Even one of history’s earliest conservation decrees (back when conservation usually meant “shoot as many as possible”) couldn’t curb the species’ demise.
But here they were, alive and well in 1951. A 15-year-old Bermudan boy, David Wingate, tagged along on the expedition, and became so passionate about the petrels than he has dedicated his whole life to their protection. A conservation programme to install artificial breeding burrows has been a heartening success, and the global population now stands at more than 250 birds.
#3 The Coelocanth should have died with the dinosaurs
In 1938, a South African museum curator named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was casually browsing the catch of a local fisherman. Stooping beside a pile of fish, she cleared away the slime and fishy guts to reveal a real-life PLESIOSAUR, its mauve scales glistening in the sunlight. OK, so it wasn’t a plesiosaur – but what actually showed up was only slightly less surprising.
The mystery fish was five feet long, with four limb-like fins and a “strange puppy dog tail.” Unable to categorise the catch herself, Courtenay-Latimer sought the expertise of local chemistry professor (and fish enthusiast) James Smith, who immediately confirmed the fish’s identity and famously sent off this cable message:
MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS = FISH DESCRIBED
(In his excitement, he forgot to make much sense)
Courtenay-Latimer had just stumbled upon the coelacanth, a fish thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Species like this, which dodge the fossil record for millennia before rearing their heads again, are known as Lazarus taxon, after the Biblical figure who was raised from the dead. (See, my Easter analogy wasn’t entirely tenuous!)
The resurrected coelacanth caused an immediate sensation in the scientific community, but it took a further 14 years before anybody unearthed a second specimen. There are now two known species of coelacanth (an Indonesian variant was discovered in 1997), although sadly they’re both considered highly endangered.
#4 The Pyrenean Ibex was cloned back into existence
The Pyrenean ibex was a subspecies of Spanish wild goat, with majestic curled horns and nimble hoofs for negotiating the rocky terrain of the Pyrenees mountain range. By 1900, their numbers had dwindled dramatically, and the following century left them hanging by a spindly thread. We’re not entirely sure what drove their decline, but poaching and competition with domestic cattle certainly played a role.
At around the same time we were celebrating the end of the Y2K threat, the Pyrenean ibex was clinging to its own existence. Their numbers were now inexplicably down to one, a female named Celia. Just a few days into the year 2000, Celia – the very last of her kind – was killed by a falling tree. Don’t you dare laugh at that.
This is the part where you expect me reveal a hidden population of Pyrenean Ibex, discovered by Professor Challenger atop a high-altitude plateau, but no such luck here. There were none left. Our only chance of bringing back the Pyrenean Ibex was to roll up our scientific sleeves and do it ourselves.
In late 2000, the Spanish government commissioned a biotechnology company to clone the Pyrenean ibex using tissue samples taken from Celia before she died. The process they used was similar to that which produced Dolly the sheep: eggs were taken from a domestic goat, their DNA removed and replaced with Celia’s DNA. Then the reconstructed embryos were placed back into a surrogate mother goat that would carry the baby ibex until birth.
Despite all our recent advancements in technology, cloning is still about as efficient as repairing your iPhone with a mallet. Out of 385 embryos that were reconstructed, only two survived into the early stages of pregnancy. But, in 2009, the impossible happened: a Pyrenean Ibex was born, alive and kicking. With the delivery of little Celia Jr. (as we’ll call her), the subspecies was officially “unextinct.” Unfortunately, Celia Jr. died seven minutes later due to physical lung defects, which are common side-effects of the cloning process.
Just think of that little guy. For seven whole minutes she was carrying an entire subspecies on her shoulders, as well as the hopes and dreams of every downtrodden conservationist in the world, but she didn’t quite make it. This Easter I’ll be eating my chocolate in her honour.
Andrew Katsis is an MSc candidate in Zoology at the University of Melbourne. He replies promptly to blog comments, so feel free to leave one below!