New Effort: Bring Passenger Pigeon Back to Life

As Smithsonian honors 100th anniversary of the last one's death

By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff

Posted Jun 19, 2014 10:07 AM CDT

(Newser) – The passenger pigeon was once so plentiful, a flock of billions darkened Ontario's skies for 14 hours in 1866; the birds were considered a "poor man's food," the AP reports, to the point that domestic workers tired of eating so many. But their numbers dwindled shockingly quickly, thanks in large part to hunting and deforestation, and in 1914, Martha—the last surviving passenger pigeon—died at age 29 at the Cincinnati Zoo. Now, 100 years later, some scientists are working to bring Martha back into the spotlight—while others are aiming to revive the entire species. Top geneticists working at the San Francisco nonprofit Revive & Restore plan to use the leftover DNA in stuffed pigeons, as well as edit the DNA of the closely-related band-tailed pigeon, to grow and breed new birds from embryo.

As the International Business Times explains, researchers at the group are studying passenger pigeon DNA from museum specimens with the aim of assembling the full genomic code. Then they'll compare the genome to that of the band-tailed pigeon, and ultimately "[convert] viable band-tailed DNA into viable passenger pigeon DNA," the group says. The lead researcher, who says the plan will cost millions and take at least 10 years, wants to teach the public that "it's so much easier to keep something alive than to bring it back to life," he says. But two other experts don't like the idea, though the AP doesn't go into detail as to why not. Meanwhile, other scientists have taken Martha out of the Smithsonian filing cabinet she's been in for 15 years, cleaned her up, and will use her as the star of an extinction exhibit opening Tuesday.

This photo taken June 14, 2014 shows Martha, an extinct passenger pigeon who died in September 1914 at the Cincinnati zoo, at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.
This photo taken June 14, 2014 shows Martha, an extinct passenger pigeon who died in September 1914 at the Cincinnati zoo, at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
This photo taken June 16, 2014 shows scientists preparing Martha, right, an extinct passenger pigeon, at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.
This photo taken June 16, 2014 shows scientists preparing Martha, right, an extinct passenger pigeon, at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
This photo taken June 14, 2014 shows Smithsonian ornithologist Brian Schmidt posing for a photo with Martha, an extinct passenger pigeon, at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.
This photo taken June 14, 2014 shows Smithsonian ornithologist Brian Schmidt posing for a photo with Martha, an extinct passenger pigeon, at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
This photo taken june 14, 2014 shows Smithsonian exhibitions expert Megan Dattoria helping prepare Martha for her new exhibit at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.
This photo taken june 14, 2014 shows Smithsonian exhibitions expert Megan Dattoria helping prepare Martha for her new exhibit at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
This photo taken June 14, 2014 shows Smithsonian exhibitions expert Richard Gould helping prepare Martha for her new exhibit at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.
This photo taken June 14, 2014 shows Smithsonian exhibitions expert Richard Gould helping prepare Martha for her new exhibit at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
This photo taken June 14, 2014 shows Smithsonian exhibitions expert Megan Dattoria carring Martha, right for her new exhibit at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.
This photo taken June 14, 2014 shows Smithsonian exhibitions expert Megan Dattoria carring Martha, right for her new exhibit at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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