Cloning The Mammoth

Paul Jamin - Le MammouthNathaniel Rich writes for the New York Times Magazine that “bringing extinct animals back to life is really happening — and it’s going to be very, very cool. Unless it ends up being very, very bad.”

The first time Ben Novak saw a passenger pigeon, he fell to his knees and remained in that position, speechless, for 20 minutes. He was 16. At 13, Novak vowed to devote his life to resurrecting extinct animals. At 14, he saw a photograph of a passenger pigeon in an Audubon Society book and “fell in love.” But he didn’t know that the Science Museum of Minnesota, which he was then visiting with a summer program for North Dakotan high-school students, had them in their collection. He was shocked when he came across a cabinet containing two stuffed pigeons, a male and a female, mounted in lifelike poses. He was overcome by awe, sadness and the birds’ physical beauty: their bright auburn breasts, slate-gray backs and the dusting of iridescence around their napes that, depending on the light and angle, appeared purple, fuchsia or green. Before his chaperones dragged him out of the room, Novak snapped a photograph with his disposable camera. The flash was too strong, however, and when the film was processed several weeks later, he was haunted to discover that the photograph hadn’t developed. It was blank, just a flash of white light.

In the decade since, Novak has visited 339 passenger pigeons — at the Burke Museum in Seattle, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Harvard’s Ornithology Department, which has 145 specimens, including eight pigeon corpses preserved in jars of ethanol, 31 eggs and a partly albino pigeon. There are 1,532 passenger-pigeon specimens left on Earth. On Sept. 1, 1914, Martha, the last captive passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. She outlasted George, the penultimate survivor of her species and her only companion, by four years. As news spread of her species’ imminent extinction, Martha became a minor tourist attraction. In her final years, whether depressed or just old, she barely moved. Underwhelmed zoo visitors threw fistfuls of sand at her to elicit a reaction. When she finally died, her body was taken to the Cincinnati Ice Company, frozen in a 300-pound ice cube and shipped by train to the Smithsonian Institution, where she was stuffed and mounted and visited, 99 years later, by Ben Novak.

The fact that we can pinpoint the death of the last known passenger pigeon is one of many peculiarities that distinguish the species. Many thousands of species go extinct every year, but we tend to be unaware of their passing, because we’re unaware of the existence of most species. The passenger pigeon’s decline was impossible to ignore, because as recently as the 1880s, it was the most populous vertebrate in North America. It made up as much as 40 percent of the continent’s bird population. In “A Feathered River Across the Sky,” Joel Greenberg suggests that the species’ population “may have exceeded that of every other bird on earth.” In 1860, a naturalist observed a single flock that he estimated to contain 3,717,120,000 pigeons. By comparison, there are currently 260 million rock pigeons in existence. A single passenger-pigeon nesting ground once occupied an area as large as 850 square miles, or 37 Manhattans.

The species’ incredible abundance was an enticement to mass slaughter. The birds were hunted for their meat, which was sold by the ton (at the higher end of the market, Delmonico’s served pigeon cutlets); for their oil and feathers; and for sport. Even so, their rapid decline — from approximately five billion to extinction within a few decades — baffled most Americans. Science magazine published an article claiming that the birds had all fled to the Arizona desert. Others hypothesized that the pigeons had taken refuge in the Chilean pine forests or somewhere east of the Puget Sound or in Australia. Another theory held that every passenger pigeon had joined a single megaflock and disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle…

[continues at the New York Times Magazine]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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33 Comments on "Cloning The Mammoth"

  1. Calypso_1 | Feb 28, 2014 at 9:50 am |

    Much rather see a Megatherium in the backyard.

    • Whatever they do, I hope they don’t clone Godzilla. That would be an obvious bad call.

      • The Well Dressed Man | Feb 28, 2014 at 11:16 am |

        Yeah. Then what if it took us too long to figure out how to clone Mothra?

        • Exactly. Slippery slope into Mayhem and the destruction of our fanciest Cities. Bad Call.

          I say, Let the old beasts stay extinct. And let the things that can’t hack it now, like the bees, who needs them anymore, right? let them die off so we stop getting stung. I hate them. We’ll make due with the cattle we got left and it will all be just fine. Clearly, god killed them off for a reason, so.

          • Not the bees! No, seriously, there is nothing like honey. I love maple syrup, but you can’t put that shit in tea.

            Besides, I feel sad that when they sting, they die…not like those fucking asshole wasps! Purest evil. Especially the ones that implant their eggs inside a living host so that the babies eat the host from the inside out.

          • Calypso_1 | Mar 1, 2014 at 12:54 pm |

            Wasps are not evil. You have to learn to make friends with them. Without wasps insect plant pest & predator balances would fall apart. The parasitic ones can’t help it. They used to be social but developed a polydnavirus that altered their behavior and reproduction strategy.
            What about cuckoo bees?

  2. Anarchy Pony | Feb 28, 2014 at 11:30 am |

    And it’s going to live where? When you’re going to clone extinct animals whose habitats no longer exist, where are they going to live? In a zoo? “Gee thanks for bringing us back to life so we can exist to amuse slack jawed idiots and dwell in a tiny and pathetic approximation of our original world.”

    • Calypso_1 | Feb 28, 2014 at 11:45 am |

      Expect Putin to lead the first Mammoth hunt.

    • Ted Heistman | Feb 28, 2014 at 12:33 pm |

      Actually, the flora in many areas is still adapted for extinct megafauna.

      • Anarchy Pony | Feb 28, 2014 at 12:59 pm |

        But do you really think the space and range needs for a naturally sustaining population of megafauna like mammoths can really be met?

        • Ted Heistman | Feb 28, 2014 at 1:19 pm |

          Yeah, I think so. People don’t realize how denuded the landscape actually is. Most of the Western United States is empty of people but also overgrazed. Megafauna is anything over 100lbs. Restoring Bison on a larger scale would be a worthy rewilding project also. But really many areas can support way more biodiversity than what they have now. The topsoil and native grasses and plants need to be restored way above and beyond what they are now but it can happen really quickly with the right approach.

          • Anarchy Pony | Feb 28, 2014 at 1:48 pm |

            I think we’d need some real societal change to effect something like that. Western ranchers refuse to tolerate wolves and bison, I doubt megafauna would go over with them at all.

          • Ted Heistman | Feb 28, 2014 at 2:04 pm |

            The thing is some crazy rich fucks are really into it. For example Ted Turner loves to buy up land and restore it to prairie and put Bison on it. Right wing Conspiracy nuts think large scale rewilding is already in the works as some illuminati master plan.

          • Anarchy Pony | Feb 28, 2014 at 2:20 pm |

            Sounds more like my master plan than something the illuminati would do.

          • You have to remember that part of their conspiracy view is that the population will be severely reduced and that the survivors will be forced to live in highly-controlled cities.

          • Anarchy Pony | Feb 28, 2014 at 3:49 pm |

            I know that one version of the conspiracy had the massive depopulation as part of it.

          • Ted Heistman | Feb 28, 2014 at 2:29 pm |

            bwahahahaha! You must be one of us!!

          • Anarchy Pony | Feb 28, 2014 at 3:48 pm |

            I didn’t even know! You really are insidious.

    • Rus Archer | Feb 28, 2014 at 1:01 pm |

      but mammoth is delicious

    • InfvoCuernos | Feb 28, 2014 at 4:21 pm |

      I could see this as a “12 Monkeys” scenario where anarchists release large numbers of megafauna to disrupt industrialist nations. Imagine the havoc that herd of mammoths can cause to interstate shipping.

      • Anarchy Pony | Feb 28, 2014 at 4:40 pm |

        None. Because the barrett .50 cal sniper rifle exists.

        • Rey d'Tutto | Mar 4, 2014 at 2:27 am |

          So does the M2 Browning. Not as accurate as the sniper rifle, but a much higher volume of fire…

  3. CuzzBoastin | Feb 28, 2014 at 11:35 am |

    Merkins pigeon problem
    Deep battered wings
    Uncle Homestand’s passengers
    Eat Frankenfoods waiting on the tarmac

    • BuzzCoastin | Feb 28, 2014 at 11:48 am |

      is the sincerest form of battery
      I’m pleased to provoke it

      • frederigoxcz305 | Feb 28, 2014 at 2:42 pm |

        My Uncle Caleb just got red Ford Focus ST by
        working off of a computer. try this B­i­g­4­1­.­ℂ­o­m

    • BuzzCoastin | Feb 28, 2014 at 4:47 pm |

      my improvement of your immitation drivel
      with my real drivel

      aMerkins created a pigeon problem
      drove an abundant resource to extinction
      for deeep battered wings & fricacy
      Uncle Homestand’s passengers to extinction
      Eat Frankenfoods waiting on the tarmac for gadot

      • CuzzBoastin | Feb 28, 2014 at 9:38 pm |

        sometimes one more beverage
        allows an act to appear much
        more amusing than one’s ability to express
        the sentiment

        • BuzzCoastin | Feb 28, 2014 at 10:11 pm |

          very flattering, thanks
          can’t recall another parody commenter here before
          glad to have provoked a reaction
          joyce declared that provocation art
          but I thinks its farts

          I do attract trolls god knows
          but yours is quite creative
          in a stilted sorta way

          I once had the church of the subpenis troll me
          stang hisself rebuked me
          but no one tried as creatively as you
          thanks for the effort on my behalf

  4. VaudeVillain | Feb 28, 2014 at 1:13 pm |

    Just in time for it to live on a planet too hot to support even the species which supplanted it! What exceptional timing!

    • That’s because they already know that the next Ice Age is coming soon…this is pretty much exactly how it happened last time. Why do you think Monsanto has that vault?

      • I for one am excited for the prospect of riding wooly mammoths with a saddle and building homes out of their hides.

  5. Thurlow Weed | Feb 28, 2014 at 1:36 pm |

    Wooly mammoths? When will Hitler be cloned?

    • Adam's Shadow | Mar 1, 2014 at 4:26 pm |

      I’m guessing as soon as we can clone a T-Rex for him to ride. With lasers.

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