Imagine being the very last of your kind. Year after year, you could traipse the globe and never once encounter another living soul: no sexual encounters, no companionship, and you can certainly farewell those games of table tennis.
This is a hypothetical scenario, but unfortunately many species have experienced its reality, thanks to Mankind and his tendency to ruin everything. I’ve already told you the heartbreaking story of Lonesome George, the Pinta Island giant tortoise who waited decades for a mate that never arrived. We call him an endling, the final stop on the railway line to extinction.
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Now meet Martha.
Not many birds get their own biography, but Martha does. According to most sources, she was hatched in 1885 under the watchful eye of Charles Otis Whitman, a professor at the University of Chicago, and named in honour of Martha Washington.
She was a passenger pigeon, and ‒ trust me ‒ you would’ve wanted to see these guys in action. In the early 1800s, the passenger pigeon was the commonest bird in the world, forming flocks so vast that they would blot out the sun for days on end. However, by the time Martha was born, she was already a precious commodity.
The story of the passenger pigeon is worth a few tears, so I’ve gone and done something a little different. Play the audio file below to hear the sombre tale, as narrated by myself and fellow zoologist Christopher Gatto:
Martha’s final years were spent at the Cincinnati Zoo. When the last of her male companions died in 1910, she became something of a celebrity, and thousands of visitors flocked to glimpse the last surviving passenger pigeon. The zoo offered $15,000 to find her a suitable mate, but, with Martha now in her late 20s and severely weakened by a stroke, time was fast running out.
On the first day of September 1914, Martha was found dead at the bottom of her cage, and with her died an entire species.
A glimmer of false hope?
Earlier this year, Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation announced Revive & Restore, an ambitious campaign to retrieve species from extinction. At the top of Brand’s list is the humble passenger pigeon, which he hopes will once again darken the American skies. His foundation plans to resurrect the species using tissue samples from museum specimens, including the body of Martha currently held by the Smithsonian.
The concept of “de-extinction” isn’t entirely ludicrous: in 2009, the extinct Pyrenean Ibex was (briefly) restored using cutting-edge cloning technology. Brand argues that the passenger pigeon can be brought back to life by artificially manipulating the DNA of band-tailed pigeons to match that of their close relative. This process raises a whole gamut of philosophical and ethical issues, but their greatest hurdle will be purely practical: even if initial efforts are successful, the passenger pigeon is still doomed.
Back in the day, the passenger pigeon was incredibly social, forming huge flocks that contained millions of individuals. In fact, it was this behaviour that proved the species’ downfall: once numbers dwindled into the thousands, their social structure crumbled, and breeding came to a standstill. Similarly, these resurrected passenger pigeons are unlikely to breed as normal in such small groups, and I doubt they could ever be reintroduced into the wild.
The best we can get out of this project is another endling ‒ another Martha ‒ and I don’t think I can bear the lose the passenger pigeon all over again.
Andrew Katsis is an MSc candidate in zoology at the University of Melbourne. The passenger pigeon audio story was produced in collaboration with Christopher Gatto. The audio story contains music by Kevin MacLeod (courtesy of Incompetech.com, used under Creative Commons By Attribution 3.0), sound effects from SoundBible.com (Creative Commons By Attribution 3.0), and the recording of a rock dove (Columba livia) by Jarek Matusiak (accessible at xeno-canto.org,under the following Creative Commons license).