The passenger pigeon, the dodo and the woolly mammoth are just a few of the species wiped off the Earth by changing environments and human activities. Now, advances in biotechnology could enable scientists to bring extinct animals back from the grave.
But critics argue the practice would only hinder conservation efforts, by resurrecting creatures that could not survive in the wild. First popularized by Michael Crichton’s novel “Jurassic Park,” the process of de-extinction has become more than a sci-fi concept…
“The Dodo’s external appearance is evidenced only by paintings and written accounts from the 17th century. Because these vary considerably, and because only a few sketches are known to have been drawn from live specimens, its exact appearance in life remains a mystery.”
The flightless dodo, Raphus cucullatus, was native to the island of Mauritius, in the south-western Indian Ocean. On 20 September 1598, a Dutch fleet commanded by Admiral Wybrant van Warwijck found a channel through the reef encircling Mauritius, and initiated the permanent settlement of the island. Less than a century later, the dodo was extinct, and other species followed rapidly.
Top: Illustration from Memoirs on the dodo by Sir Richard Owen, 1866.
Detail of a terracotta moulding of a dodo in the Waterhouse Building at the Natural History Museum, London.
An extended drought that struck Mauritius about 4200 years ago turned one of the island’s few sources of fresh water into a muddy death trap for dodos, giant tortoises, and other wildlife, a new study suggests. The excavations have yielded the fossils of small creatures—including insects, bats, and snails—as well as the pollen and seeds of plants that lived in the area, giving scientists a much more comprehensive look at the dodo’s ecosystem.
Mauritius, an island nation in the southwest Indian Ocean about 870 km east of Madagascar, is famed as the home of the dodo, a flightless, turkey-sized relative of pigeons and doves whose name has become synonymous with extinction. Even though dodos died out in the late 1600s, about 80 years after Europeans first colonized the islands, only a few descriptions of the bird exist, and those accounts are often contradictory, says Hanneke Meijer, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, several excavations on the island recovered large amounts of dodo remains, but at the time it wasn’t routine to collect information that could provide ecological context.
Since 2005, Meijer and her colleagues have re-excavated portions of a formerly swampy area known as Mare aux Songes (“Pond of Dreams”), one of the sites where many dodo remains were previously unearthed. Thousands of years ago, the area was a small lake—a freshwater oasis in an otherwise dry environment, Meijer says. Along with small fossils such as pollen, seeds, insects, and snails, the team’s recent diggings have brought to light a rich layer of fossils of bats, songbirds, dodos, and extinct giant tortoises…
(read more: Science NOW) (illustration: C. Julian Pender Hume)