First Mammoths, Now Dodos: Race Towards De-Extinction Escalates with Dodo DNA Sequencing

by Jon D. B.
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Investors are pouring millions into the de-extinction of the wooly mammoth, and 2022’s discovery of “fantastic” dodo DNA could mean they’re next.

Ask a friend what a thylacine is, and they’re likely to return a frustrated glare. But a dodo? Who isn’t familiar with this international symbol of extinction, or heard the phrase “Gone the way of the dodo”?

Standing around 3-feet (1 meter) tall and weighing as much as 40-pounds, this family of hefty, flightless birds was native to Mauritius and nearby islands only; isolated specks of land east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Dodos thrived around Mauritius for millennia, too. That is, they did until humanity found their little speck.

Through over-hunting of both parents and their eggs, habitat loss, and the release of non-indigenous pests like dogs, cats, and rats that arrived with European sailors in the early 1500s, the dodo birds would be extinct less than 200 years after the Western world “discovered” them. But now, centuries after their demise, scientists are looking to send the common dodo down (or up, rather) the path of de-extinction.

A ‘Fantastic Specimen’ of Dodo DNA Sparks De-Extinction Hopes

As the science of de-extinction rapidly evolves (with a hefty focus on mammoths), a “fantastic specimen” of dodo DNA has come to light at the perfect time. In fact, this discovery proved the final piece of the dodo’s genetic puzzle.

According to a team of biological researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, scientists are now far closer to “resurrecting” the dodo more than three centuries after humanity caused it to disappear forever. And they’ll be able to do so with a complete genome sequence for the species – a first in history.

Led by evolutionary biology professor Beth Shapiro, the UC Santa Cruz team revealed their findings via a Royal Society webinar. Shapiro and her colleagues will publish the dodo’s full genetic sequence courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

In short: “Yes, the dodo genome is entirely sequenced because we sequenced it. It’s not been published yet, but it does exist and we’re working on it right now,” Shapiro told a captivated audience, per The Telegraph.

Prof. Shapiro is a leading voice in the field of de-extinction. Her 2015 book, “How To Clone A Mammoth,” came as geneticists would complete the wooly mammoth genome sequence for the first time – a whopping 4,000 years after their extinction.

The Resurgence of Dodo Birds Holds Roadblocks Mammals like the Mammoth Do Not, and Vice-Versa

Shapiro discusses the de-extinction of the dodo in her book, too. “More than any other species [the dodo] is the international symbol of human-caused extinction,” she wrote near a decade ago. But birds pose unique challenges when it comes to the immensely complex science of de-extinction.

1626 illustration of the dodo. The dodo (possibly from the Dutch ‘dodoor’ meaning sluggard) were hunted to extinction by Europeans and the domestic pets they introduced. These flightless birds were related to the pigeon and were native to Mauritius and islands to the east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The common dodo (Raphus cucullatus or Didus ineptus) became extinct from Mauritius c 1665-1670. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

“Mammals are simpler,” Shapiro told her Royal Society attendees. She would cite “the same approach” taken for Dolly the Sheep: cloning.

“But we don’t know how to [clone] birds because of the intricacies of their reproductive pathways. So there needs to be another approach for birds,” she would add. But the professor holds “little doubt that we are going to get there.”

De-extinction scientists believe the dodo’s only surviving close cousin – the Nicobar pigeon – could become a vessel for dodo DNA. Even if this becomes possible, however, the Nicobar pigeon is far smaller than all dodo species. A small pigeon could never carry a dodo egg – an egg that was larger than the pigeon itself. This makes it physically impossible for a modern relative to surrogate a full-on dodo.

Nicobar Pigeon, Caloenas nicobarica, captive. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Mammoths continue to lead the charge when it comes to de-extinction funding. But of the dozen-or-so species that are serious candidates for de-extinction, Shapiro believes the dodo is one of the strongest. Appropriate tropical habitat still exists for the species. And the birds never would’ve gone extinct if not for human meddling.

De-Extinction of Mammoths vs Dodos Boils Down to Climate and Conservation Woes

On the flip side, the ecological niche that mammoths inhabited for millennia is no longer viable. A drastically-warmer climate and the rapid loss of tundra landscape means mammoths would be at-risk in the wild. Like the plight of polar bears and our ever-disappearing Arctic ice, humanity would be re-introducing a species into a time when extinction would be finding them all over again.

Which brings further questions, and not answers. Is reintroducing extinct species through de-extinction science a responsible decision? Especially during such a volatile time in our planet’s history?

And if so, why not put such drastic scientific effort and private funding towards saving animals that do still exist – like our suffering polar bears?

It’s an ethical gray area, to be sure; one that illustrates the key differences for bringing back mammoths and/or dodos. While humanity may have played a part in the extinction of the mammoth, modern science now holds to the idea that it was the end of the last great Ice Age that did the wooly mammoths in.

Dodos, however, would still be strutting along on their stumpy, yet highly-adapted legs if not for direct human intervention. So the case, it seems, for the de-extinction of dodos is one conservationists can at least feel at ease with.

Whether dodos will ever walk the Earth again, however, remains to be seen.

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