Bringing Extinct Species Back to Life: Stewart Brand at TED

UPDATE: Read Stewart Brand’s answers to questions on Reddit:IamA.

Speaking before a full house at this week’s TED Conference in Long Beach, California, tech-legend and environmentalist Stewart Brand said scientists now have the knowledge and the tools to bring extinct species back to life. First up: the Tyrannosaurus rex. Sorry, I mean the passenger pigeon.

Why not a T. rex? “All the ten-year-old boys of the world will grieve, but dinosaurs are off the table,” he told me later. “We’d love to have them back, but you cannot clone from stone.”

The passenger pigeon, on the other hand, was still alive in the first half of the 20th century. Its DNA is still fairly fresh, stored in the cells of many museum samples.

For untold centuries the incredibly docile and inconceivably numerous passenger pigeon was a major food source for North Americans. “Flocks that were a mile wide and 400 miles long used to darken the sun,” Brand said.

After over-harvesting and habitat destruction led to the species’ extinction, public shock and sadness inspired action that protected the bison from a similar fate. Other species have not been so lucky, including some pretty spectacular ones, such as the large carnivorous marsupial known as the thylacine, which is preserved in some old film which he showed.

He then detailed just how he and a group of researchers around the world are coming together to make it happen. National Geographic Explorer Beth Shapiro is among them, having already sequenced the passenger pigeon DNA. They and others will be gathering at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. on March 15 for a TEDx DeExtinction conference open to the public. It will also be streamed live online.

Scientists are investigating many different ways of resurrecting species, and they will all be discussed at the TEDx conference, but for the passenger pigeon, the plan is to follow the pattern of Beth Shapiro’s sequenced DNA and inject new copies of it into cells in the gonads of chickens.

Then when those chickens mate, their offspring will be formed from naturally combined passenger pigeon DNA.

“It won’t be perfect,” he said, “but it should be perfect enough, because nature doesn’t do perfect.”

 

No Bull. Well, Some Bulls.

Another team is taking a different approach, selectively breeding the most ancient lineages of cattle to recreate the massive aurochs, the wild ancestor of all domestic cattle, immortalized (to a degree) in the naturalistic cave paintings by Ice Age Europeans (read posts about rock art).

This is not just for show. Aurochs movements and feeding kept the landscape a mixture of open forest and meadow, far different from the dense forests the world now associates with wild Europe. Bringing the huge herbivores back would help restore the earlier ecology of the continent.

Thinking of the ecological disaster that elk have wrought in the American west in the absence of wolves, I asked Brand what was going to keep the aurochs population in check.

“The things that used to feed on them were saber-toothed cats and the short-faced bear. We’re not in a big hurry to bring those guys back.

“Fence technology is coming along very far and very well and eventually you’ll be able to have fenced-in areas and have big, scary carnivores back. But in the meantime there’s lots of hunters who’ll be perfectly happy to fill the short-faced bear niche.”

 

And What About the Woolly Mammoth?

“This is a long slow project. It’s a multi-generation process,” Brand says. Looking confidently into the future he simply states, “We will get woolly mammoths back.”

If this all sounds too Jurassic-Park-like, and you’re thinking that humans shouldn’t be messing with the landscape and presence or absence of species, Brand offers some perspective.

“Fact is, humans have made a huge hole in nature over the past 10,000 years,” he says. Maybe it’s time we tried to close it back up.

 

NEXT: Read Stewart Brand’s Answers to Your Questions on Reddit IAmA

 

Learn More

TEDx DeExtinction: Which Animal Species Could Be Revived?

Read All Nat Geo Posts From TED 2013

Follow TEDx DeExtinction on Twitter

Wildlife

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.