Passenger pigeon, extinct 100 years ago

This video from the USA is called How to Bring Passenger Pigeons All the Way Back: Ben Novak at TEDxDeExtinction. It says about itself:

1 April 2013

Ben J. Novak is a young scientist pioneering the emerging field of “de-extinction”. The science of studying extinct species and applying their ecology and genomics to building future ecosystems is widely interdisciplinary, and demands a broad knowledge base. Ben studied ecology and evolution at Montana State University, specializing in paleontology, ecology, and genetics.

He trained in Ancient DNA lab techniques under Dr. Hendrik Poinar, at the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre. His personal study of the history of the passenger pigeon and pigeon biology brings the spectrum together to work with and coordinate multiple teams to bring the passenger pigeon back to life in a project now named “The Great Comeback”, a Revive and Restore initiative under the Long Now Foundation. He has joined Dr. Beth Shapiro in sequencing the genome of the passenger pigeon at University of California at Santa Cruz, and is working on developing the future designs for making de-extinction possible to diverse species beyond the passenger pigeon.

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

2014: the year of the passenger pigeon

In 2014, spare a thought for Martha the last passenger pigeon, who passed away 100 years ago.

Name: Martha
Species: Ectopistes migratorius
Dates: ?–1914
Claim to fame: The last individual of her species
Go visit: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

In the middle of the 19th century, the passenger pigeon was by far the most common bird in the United States, if not the world. It was a species that flocked in mind-boggling numbers, seemingly endless clouds of densely packed birds darkening the skies for hours, sometimes days.

One of the most striking accounts of this phenomenon was recorded by Major W. Ross King, who witnessed “an extraordinary flock of birds” in the vicinity of Niagara in 1860.

“I was perfectly amazed to behold the air filled and the sun obscured by millions of pigeons, not hovering about but darting onwards in a straight line with arrowy flight, in a vast mass a mile or more in breadth, and stretching before and behind as far as the eye could reach,” he wrote in The Sportsman and Naturalist in Canada.

The flock took 14 hours to pass overhead and, based on a flying speed of 60 mph, King estimated that “the column…could not have been less than three hundred miles in length”. Using these parameters, several people have had a go at calculating the size of this flock, as naturalist Joel Greenberg explains in his newly published book A Feathered River Across the Sky. One authority figured it must have contained just shy of four billion individuals. Even if this is an overestimate and the birds were only travelling at half the speed King suggested, this colony would still have been over one-billion strong, says Greenberg.

It is testimony to humankind’s great powers of destruction that within 50 years of this event, only a single captive pair remained, named after the US’ first president and lady George and Martha Washington. George perished in July 1910 at Cincinnati Zoo. Martha survived for four more years, sufficient time for her to garner celebrity as the sole-surviving member of her species. So when she eventually died on 1 September 1914 “at 1 P.M. of old age”, she was frozen in [a] huge block of ice and sent by train to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

It fell to two men – William Palmer and Robert Shufeldt – to prepare the body for taxidermy. Shufeldt described the procedure in a short paper published in the The Auk. This makes for remarkable reading, an incongruous blend of anatomical and domestic detail. They set to work, for instance, in Shufeldt’s home “(3356–18th Street, Washington D.C.)” and “(on the third floor, back room)”. Shufeldt marveled at “the great size of the pectoralis major muscle”, consigned the brain and eyes to alcohol and Palmer removed Martha’s skin. “Immediately after this we partook of a ‘late lunch’ in the dining-room below.” It almost comes as a surprise that Shufeldt did not think to share the menu.
Inside Martha. The last passenger pigeon’s skin is still attached to the base of the mandibles (left). It is at around this point in the dissection that Palmer and Shufeldt went for their “late lunch”. Photograph: Internet Archive
Once stuffed, Martha’s skin went on display in the bird hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). During the course of the 20th century, the taxidermy left Washington D.C. on two occasions: in 1966, she attended a conservation conference at San Diego Zoo to mark the institution’s 50th anniversary; and in 1974, she travelled to Cincinnati Zoo for the dedication of a new building in her name. On both occasions, she flew once more (this time by aeroplane), travelling first class and escorted by a dedicated flight attendant
Martha, as rendered by the Smithsonian's taxidermist Nelson Wood. Photograph: Robert Shufeldt/Internet Archive
The plight of “last individuals” – think Lonesome George – is always going to move people, especially when the hand of humankind has been so heavily involved in the extinction. So it seems likely that 2014 will be the year of the passenger pigeon as people mark the centenary of Martha’s death.

In addition to Greenberg’s excellent book, which devotes a chapter to Martha and boasts a terrific appendix of passenger pigeon-related miscellany, we can also look forward to A Message to Martha by Mark Avery, former conservation director at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Martha herself will be the star turn in a special exhibition at NMNH. Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America will run from 27 June 2014 to 14 June 2015 and tell the story of the passenger pigeon and other extinct birds, including the great auk, the Carolina parakeet and heath hen.
Martha (right) peers at the passenger pigeon entry in Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (London, 1729). The pigeon in the foreground is a male. Photograph: Daria Wingreen-Mason
Tale ends

The act of researching Martha’s story has raised several questions that I have not been able to answer to my satisfaction. If you can help solve any of these outstanding animal-related mysteries, please leave a comment or send me a message on Twitter @WayOfThePanda.

  •  There is a lot of uncertainty over the year of Martha’s birth. Her original owner (before she reached Cincinnati Zoo) did not keep good records and the zookeeper responsible for her was rarely consistent in his reporting, says Greenberg. It is often said she was 29 when she died, but I guess we’ll never know for sure.
  • In Shufeldt’s report of Martha’s autopsy he made a very mysterious observation. On returning from his “late lunch”, he noticed “a slit-like opening” half a centimetre long on the right side of Martha’s skinned abdomen. He enlarged it. “Much to my surprise,” he wrote on page 31, “I found a quantity of blood (not clotted) in the abdominal cavity, and the right lobe of the liver and the intestine almost entirely broken up,” wait for it, “as though it had been done with some instrument.” As if this weren’t puzzling enough, he went on to note that the intestine “was missing altogether, while the right lobe of the liver was in scattered fragments.” At the risk of encouraging conspiracy theorists, any idea what could have caused this damage?

Can Genetic Engineering Bring Back Extinct Animals? We might have a passenger pigeon again in ten years, says author: here.

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