The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: deextinction

Connecting reintroduction and deextinction

Ever since I watched the TEDx DeExtinction event in March 2013, I’ve been thinking about how deextinction efforts need to consider the history of reintroductions if they are to be successful. I published a Viewpoint piece in Bioscience in September 2013 with some of those thoughts. Because of that publication and putting my opinions into the scholarly conversation, in the last couple of months, I’ve had the chance to talk with a couple journalists covering deextinction.

The June 2014 issue of Bioscience included “Extinction is forever … or is it?” by Leslie Ogden (available OpenAccess). When I talked to Leslie, I stressed the need to consider the destination of these animals being brought back. Because they will be going somewhere, and that somewhere probably has people in it, deextinction moves from a scientific question to a cultural question. Here’s the section of the article where Leslie talks about my work on reintroduction histories:

Reintroduction from captivity of organisms extinct in the wild already has precedents and an institutional basis in guidelines by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Spanning the breach from reintro­duction to de-extinction may be only a matter of time. Dolly Jørgensen, an environmental historian in the Department of Ecology and Environ­mental science at Umeå University, Sweden, who wrote about reintroduction and de-extinction in a 2013 issue of BioScience(doi:10.1093/bioscience/63.9.719), thinks that we need to look to history. Her research is focused on examining the history of the reintroduction to Sweden of the beaver, a species that was extinct in most of Europe by the end of the 1800s. She also studies the history of the musk ox, which was reintroduced from Greenland after being absent in Scandinavia for about 10,000 years. With media attention focused on the front end of the de-extinction debate (the making of the animal), Jørgensen (amused that she shares a name with the first cloned mammal), thinks we cannot ignore other aspects of the process. “If it’s ever going to be more than just a monster on display, then we have to think that it’s going to gosomewhere.” Jørgensen thinks that it is important to examine the pitfalls of reintroductions of the recent past. “If you look at cases where predators have tried to be reintroduced following periods of local extinction—like the lynx in Scotland and wolves in Europe—what you see is that it’s a very contested space,” she says.

For the European beaver, remnant populations of the decimated species existed in small pockets in several countries, one of which was Norway. A passionate county museum director, Eric Festin, had the idea to repopulate an area named Beaver River Valley (Bjurälvsdalen in Swedish) with its long-missing namesake. The reintroduction of less than 100 beavers between 1922 and 1940 has resulted in more than 100,000 beavers now, which Jørgensen says makes it the most successful reintroduction ever. But the consequences include the beavers’ habit of damming, which creates newly flooded areas, which, in turn, has an impact on landowners. There are also conflicts with forestry, “because beavers like trees too,” says Jørgensen. It’s not all bad, she says, but reintroductions have both positive and negative outcomes that may not be foreseen. “You have to be dynamic when a species is actually successful, because you may end up with a problem,” she says. “History can be an example to look to, though not necessarily a guide.” And whether or not we can achieve—or want to achieve—de-extinction, says Jørgensen “is more than just a scientific question; it’s a cultural question too.”

I was happy to help Leslie get permission to reproduce a great picture of the first reintroduction of beaver in Sweden alongside this section. I think it shows the cultural work of reintroduction in action.

"Undoing Forever" radio program on CBC Ideas

“Undoing Forever” radio program on CBC Ideas

I also had the opportunity to be interviewed for the radio program “Undoing forever” by Britt Wray, which was aired as part of the Canadian Broadcast Company series Ideas on 19 June 2014 (the audio is available to listen to online). This was my first real radio interview: I got to go to the SVT Radio station and sit in a studio with a headset and mic and technician in the next room while Britt and her production crew sat in Canada. It was great!

One of my quotes is in the opening sequence: “We need to be talking about, oh, not just technically could make it or not, but: Where’s it going to go? What are going to be the challenges? How are people going understand this?” Then my part of the interview starts just after the 43 minute mark of the program. I wanted to stress that while bringing a species back to life may sound like a wonderful idea from afar, we have to look at the social and cultural issues that appear locally. There are always challenges to living with/near animals. Environmental philosopher Thom van Dooren also appears in the program immediately after me. He stressed the need to mourn extinct animals in order to be able to learn from mistakes.

This particular program was heavily weighted toward the passenger pigeon because several of the scientists interviewed are directly involved in that research. As I listened to their comments in the program about the billions of passenger pigeons that once flew in the US, I couldn’t help but think of all the problems they would cause today. Do scientists really think there would be a place in the US for huge flocks of birds to go? I don’t. I think they would end up being labelled pests and efforts would be taken to greatly limit their spread. It wouldn’t matter that they had once been extinct and all kinds of time and money had been spent to bring them back. This is the reality of reintroduction: people are perfectly happy with animals as long as they don’t get in the way.

Reintroduction & de-extinction

I have a short Viewpoint piece out in this month’s Bioscience about the potential link between reintroduction (bringing a species back to an area where it was formerly) and de-extinction (bringing a species back to life through fancy genetic means after it has been declared extinct). I suggest that reintroduction experience and standards should be a guide for de-extinction projects that attempt to bring back formerly extinct species.

Now I want to make it perfectly clear that the article does not say we should be going around de-extincting species. What it says is that we will be – and that’s not entirely the same thing. I think, like animal cloning, that this will take off as a scholarly pursuit, whether or not it is the right thing to do. I mention in the paper that humanities scholars in particular need to be mobilised in discussions about whether or not a species should be brought back. Philosophers and historians should have important things to contribute in the debate, and so far, they have been relatively silent. There were no professional philosophers or historians represented at the TEDxDeExtinction event, for example. My article doesn’t go into the details what humanities scholars should be saying, although it does suggest that we need to learn from history–the history of reintroduction–before moving forward with de-extinction.

I think that if geneticists and molecular biologists go to all the trouble of re-creating a species (whether or not it is truly the same doesn’t actually matter), the plan should be to eventually have that species in the wild. And if that is the goal, then reintroduction is an appropriate guide. So my article talks about some of the guidance out there and how it might be useful.

The article also offers a few ‘words of wisdom’ about learning from past reintroduction experiences, focusing on potential conflicts that could arise. One example is the thylacine. Although scientists have argued that thylacines could not physically have killed sheep because of their jaw configuration, rural residents might still object to them coming back just as wolf reintroductions have met with resistance.

Pleistocene Park was established in Russia with the intent of restoring the Mammoth Steppe ecosystem.

Pleistocene Park was established in Russia with the intent of restoring the Mammoth Steppe ecosystem.

While everyone seems to be advocating rewilding these days, are average people really going to want to have mammoths wondering around the nearby woods? I envision that mammoths will be brought back through de-extinction techniques within the next 20 years and they’ll be put in subarctic national park type areas, like Pleistocene Park in Russia which was established in 1996 specifically with the intent of having mammoths there some day. When the mammoths stray too far out of bounds, they’ll have to be captured and taken back home or killed. Since this is precisely what is done currently with reintroduced animals like the muskox in Norway, it seems to me that those examples should be studied more closely.

If anything, I hope that the short piece provides some food for thought for the scientific community. Instead of always thinking a new technological development changes everything, it might be wiser to reflect on the ways that everything stays the same.

Losing control of the Aepyornis

I read a fabulous short story by H.G. Wells titled “Aepyornis Island” which was printed in Pall Mall Budget in December 1894. You can read the story via Classic Reader. It is a story about a de-extinction story told by an old sailor.

Aepyornis maximus skeleton and egg from L. Monnier, "Paleontologie de Madagascar," Annals de Palaeontologie 8:125-172.

Aepyornis maximus skeleton and egg from L. Monnier, “Paleontologie de Madagascar,” Annales de Palaeontologie 8 (1913):125-172.

In the tale, a sailor who collected island specimens to send back home to English gentlemen collectors had an adventure with de-extinction in Madagascar. He had been collecting eggs and bones of the extinct Aepyornis maximus, a giant flightless bird native to Madagascar, when he became marooned on a nearby small island.

This part of Wells’ story is clearly based on fact. According to Edward Hitchcock, Outline of the Geology of the Globe (1853), the previous existence of Aepyronis maximus had recently been made known through super-sized eggs (equal to 6 ostrich eggs) and bones (the bird would have been 12 feet tall) brought back from the island. Hitchcock was referring to a publication by Isidore Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire from 1851 in which the bird’s discovery was first documented by a zoologist. The public must have also been immediately aware of the discovery. In a literary work dated to 1851, Henry Morley, a professor of English literature at University College London, claims that he would like to be an Aepyornis to lay giant eggs of mischief, noting that “the fossil eggs of that bird now in Paris are sublime.” By the time Wells was writing, the extinction of the Aepyornis maximus and its fossilised eggs were mentioned in popular science pieces such as The Observer: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Interchange of Observations for All Students and Lovers of Nature (1893) and Natural Science: A Monthly Review of Scientific Progress (1894). The bird’s mystique had invaded the public’s imagination.

In Wells’ story, when the sailor ends up drifting at sea, he had three Aepyronis eggs with him. He cracked open the first one on the second day at sea and ate it (tasted like duck). On the eighth day, he opened the second one, but it had a developing embryo. He thought it was disgusting, but hey being stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean makes a man hungry so he ate it all anyway. He still had the third untouched when he came ashore on an island. Needless to say, the egg ended up hatching even though it was hundreds of years old.

The sailor was of course delighted to have some company, so he and the giant bird became friends. In recounting the story within Well’s story, the sailor noted how beautiful the bird was: “After his first moult he began to get handsome, with a crest and a blue wattle, and a lot of green feathers at the behind of him.” The two were always together … until the bird became mature at about 2 years old. Then it started attacking him and the sailor ended up restricted to the tallest palm tree and a lagoon to stay out of harm’s way. Here’s where the story turns:

Think of the shame of it, too! Here was this extinct animal mooning about my island like a sulky duke, and me not allowed to rest the sole of my foot on the place. I used to cry with weariness and vexation. I told him straight that I didn’t mean to be chased about a desert island by any damned anachronisms. I told him to go and peck a navigator of his own age. But he only snapped his beak at me. Great ugly bird, all legs and neck!

Wells stresses in the passage that this bird is “extinct” and this live specimen is an “anachronism.” The bird’s extinction history continues to be in focus with the sailor saying things like “I’ll admit I felt small to see this blessed fossil lording it there” and “It took me some time to learn how unforgiving and cantankerous an extinct bird can be.” The Aepyronis had been de-extincted and the situation was not pretty (interesting to note how when the bird is now an enemy, it becomes ugly rather than beautiful).

As you might guess, the sailor ends up killing the Aepyronis and regrets it, feeling loss and loneliness. He saves the skeleton (like the one in Monnier’s 1913 article) and sells it to a collector after he is rescued. It ends up to be a new larger subspecies than the maximus.

Reading this short story made me think about how humans respond when we lose control of animals. Both de-extinction and reintroduction efforts can be hit by this quandary. The Aepyronis was great to have back as long as it played by human rules, as long as it behaved. But when it didn’t, it had to be killed. This is exactly the same thing that has happened with the muskox of Dovrefjell, which are permitted to roam freely inside of a line drawn on a map, but if they wander outside of that, they are killed. It is also the same with beaver, which are now so plentiful in Sweden that they often create flooding on land humans think should not be flooded. The cover of the May issue of a Swedish hunting magazine features such a story, hailing the marksman who shot the troublesome rodent.

We’re happy with bringing animals back because we’re in control of doing so. But after they are back, we may lose control as they go about doing what they do best, which is to be animals. And sometimes, like the sailor, we may decide to kill what we not so long ago brought back from the dead.

Hope in the Anthropocene

Welcome to the Anthropocene. Cover story of the The Economist, 26 May 2011.

Welcome to the Anthropocene. Cover story of the The Economist, 26 May 2011.

We are living in the Anthropocene. The term, proposed by Crutzen and Stoermer in 2000, attempts to capture the profound effect humans have had and are having on the geology and ecology of Earth. While Crutzen and Stoermer think of the Anthropocene as beginning in the 18th century with the rise of fossil fuels — and many have subsequently adopted this view –, I think humans have been altering ecology in massive ways much longer and that we need not limit our indicator of the Anthropocene to climate change.

At the “From Instants to Eons: Time in Environment and Environmental History” conference yesterday, the Anthropocene took center stage in both of the keynote lectures by Verena Winiwarter (Klagenfurt University, Austria) and Frank Zelko (University of Vermont, USA). On top of that, my husband, Finn Arne Jørgensen, started a two-week stint as the Umeå University blogger yesterday in which he will be writing a series of posts on the Anthropocene and entanglement with nature. The Anthropocene is on my mind.

In a sense, nothing could illustrate the Anthropocene better than the reintroduction cases I’m working on. Only humans could do what’s been done. Only humans could and would transport muskox calves thousands of miles from Greenland to Norway to settle them where the species had been extinct for 30,000 years. Humans over came the geographic limitations of Earth, serving as a land bridge between two places that muskox could not have travelled between on their own. Only humans could nearly exterminate the beaver population in all of Europe, then decades or hundreds of years later transport beavers in boxes for days via rail and boat and wagon to release them in prior beaver territories. Only humans could wipe out the vicent in the wild then carefully manage the few animals remaining in zoos to breed a population for reintroduction.

While I recognize the immense power humans have in shaping this planet for good or bad, I have to ask: is the Anthropocene something to be afraid of? That seems to be the message some scholars want to convey. At the end of Verena’s talk about turning points in environmental history, we were shown projections from the Limits to Growth and follow-up studies of it that basically predict the dramatic collapse of civilization as we know it in 2030. For her, this is the cost of the Anthropocene. But how useful was such a doomsday message for the audience? It gave us the tragic ending of the tale with little hope for change.

That’s where I want to be different in my keynote lecture today, “Happy endings: how choosing the end point of our environmental histories matters”. Because I acknowledge the profoundness of the Anthropocene, environmental historians need to find stories that give us hope, directions for the future. We as humans have the unique ability to shape nature, so we need to be conscious about that force. My talk builds upon Cronon’s storytelling ideas I discussed in a previous post, thinking about the moral of the story that is drawn out of different narratives.

I can tell different stories by focusing on a particular time frame. If I stop the beaver story in 1871, it is nothing but tragic. Beaver are dead and gone from Sweden. But if I extend story to the 1930s, there is a very different outcome. While the beaver had been gone, it is back. The narrative is no longer a declensionist one. The moral of the story shifts from humans being responsible for the rapacious destruction of wildlife, to a moral that we can undo environmental damage like the beaver’s disappearance. While both of the narratives are true, the narratives lead us to different places. And I would argue that the first narrative—the extinction of the beaver—takes us to a dead end. It gives us a picture of destruction, but doesn’t suggest ways that the world can be pieced back together. By extending the narrative through the reintroduction, we are led on a path to action. We see that there is hope for the future; that things maybe can be made right.

During the De-extinction conference,conservation biologist Kent Redford commented after his talk:

Conservation started off with a conviction that it was a crisis discipline and that it could only get people’s attention by pointing out what was wrong and the terrible things that we are doing to the natural world. I think that after 30 years of that, people have stopped listening to us. And I think that the lessons should be that hope is the answer and that hope will get people’s attention. And it’s why I’m less concerned about the details of de-extinction than I am about the lesson of hope it can carry.

The same applies to environmental history. I think people will stop listening (and maybe they already have) if all we offer are doomsday messages. By wisely choosing the end point of the story, we may provide a path forward.

De-extinction in the press

For those of you interested in the de-extinction issue I discussed earlier this week, I’ve been collecting some of the interesting press about it. Here’s a sampling of the coverage and what I thought of it.

Carl Zimmer’s “Bringing Extinct Species Back” is the article highlighted on the cover of National Geographic’s April 2013 magazine. It has a broad coverage of both sides of the issue. And it tells an interesting story about a clone of the last bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, that lived a mere 10 minutes. Even though it was brief, the species was de-extinct for a moment. It shows how close we’ve already come to breathing life into dead species.

National Geographic's April 2013 issue

National Geographic’s April 2013 issue

As a supplement to Zimmer’s cover story, National Geographic has created a web hub for the whole de-extinction project. From an analyst’s point of view, the photo collection of extinct animals by Rob Kendrick available through the site is particularly interesting. He chose to make nostalgic tintypes of museum specimens of extinct animals, from mammoths to bucardo. The tintypes make it seem as if the photo captured a live animal in the late 1800s. There is an implication of human involvement in the death of the animals since a human has taken the ‘old’ photo of it. So the photos show us a world we have lost, even though in reality, ‘we’ never had it since most of the animals in the photos died out before anyone alive today was born and even well before photography existed.

I also love the photo at the top of Stewart Brand’s piece in favor of de-extinction which shows a small child touching a baby mammoth in a museum exhibit. I know that my 6-year-old would love to do that. That’s the part of de-extinction that probably hasn’t been discussed enough – the display aspect. I can envision that zoos will be clamouring to have the resurrected species because of their draw. The school kids will absolutely marvel at a wooly mammoth, sabertooth tiger, or thylacine. Kids are the conservationists of the future, so with their visits to zoos and aquariums with these species, their knowledge and what needs to be done for future conservation will be heightened. Just the other day, my daughter got a new story app on her iPod that is about caring for animals in an aquarium. During one of the segments, the narrator was talking about starfish being able to regrow limbs – “I already knew that, mommy,” she said, “because I learned it at the aquarium.” Now, the last aquarium we visited was in Denmark 6 months ago, so clearly messages in these settings can sink in.

The animal I really want to see back is the gastric brooding frog, which grows its fertilized eggs into tadpoles then little frogs in its stomach. It became extinct in the 1980s. The photos of it as part of the de-extinction site are fascinating. The big problem  is that the species likely died out because of a fungus, and since that fungus still exists, scientists would be making a species that would simply go extinct again in the wild. So there’s some work to be done on either eradicating the fungus or genetically altering the ‘resurrected’ frogs to have an immunity to the fungus. Either solution is tricky.

Stuart Pimm brings up a good point about ecosystems and where these species will fit in. The land use has changed since many of these species became extinct and the types of food they evolved to eat might not be available. So if someone really wants to bring these species back, they have to look at the whole picture and whether or not there is still ecological room for them.

Hannah Walters writing for Scientific American makes a less compelling case about the anthropocentrism of de-extinction. While she’s right that some of the proponents are not taking into account ecosystem change, her argument that the extinctions we know about, particularly the ones humans have caused, are not any worse than extinction in the past is a bit off the mark. In the same way that climate change is nothing new but human-induced climate change does appear to have different characteristics, extinction without humans and with humans in the picture are different as well. That’s not narcissism — it’s admitting that humans have an uncanny ability to shape their globe.

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic ends his article on the subject with the astute observation that “science may be able to produce the organisms, but society would have to produce the conditions in which they could flourish.” To me, that’s the most important issue facing de-extinction. It’s not the technical challenges of making the creature, it’s about enabling it to live. This will require scientists to place the socio-cultural aspects to be put right in the center of each and every de-extinction effort, not as a side activity or an afterthought. I hope they choose to do so.




Extinguishing extinction

In this decade some extinct species will begin to come back.

This is how the TEDxDeExtinction website introduces ongoing work to bring extinct species back from the grave, known as de-extinction. On Friday, 15 March 2013, the group, sponsored by National Geographic in conjunction with The Long Now Foundation, hosted a day-long series of lectures in Washington DC on the topic of bringing extinct species back to life. I got to see the lectures thanks to streaming video (but no thanks to the video service Livestream which has a horrible interface with only the ability to move forward or back on video in increments of c.4 minutes, making it nearly impossible to just ‘rewind’ to hear what someone said).

A few themes appeared over and over in the talks.

(1) “This isn’t just science fiction”

Several speakers, including Carl Zimmer (science journalist) who said this quote, could not help but refer to popular culture in their lectures by mentioning the film Jurassic Park. They were always quick to point out the differences between current genetic work and the film’s portrayal, noting that bringing back dinosaurs is not possible. Bringing back wooly mammoths, on the other hand, is almost within reach. What’s funny about this is that many scientists 30 years ago would have said bringing back mammoths was impossible – so I’d caution any scientist from predicting what may or may not be possible in the future just because we can’t do it now. The ‘impossible now’ is indeed what science fiction, as a genre, is very good at imagining, and it’s often turned out possible at a later time.

(2) “It wouldn’t be an exact replica …. but it would be something that looked and felt like a wooly mammoth”

Columbian mammoth display, Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits. Photo by Finn Arne Jørgensen.

Columbian mammoth display, Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits. Photo by Finn Arne Jørgensen.

How close is close enough? When Hendrik Poinar of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University was talking about the de-extinction of wooly mammoths, he pointed out that the new mammoth won’t be exactly the same animal genetically (since we have only DNA fragments to work with), but it will look and behave like a mammoth. For Poinar, this was clearly close enough. Kent Redford offered a similar view in his talk “Tainted Species?” He argued that although the notion of purity is important for humans (referencing the work of Claude Levi Strauss on binary opposites in The Raw and the Cooked), purity doesn’t exist in nature. Everything is a hybrid, so we shouldn’t be concerned about whether the American bison herd is ‘tainted’ with cattle genes. On this one, I have to agree. I think the arguments about whether or not wild boar released in Scandinavia or England are ‘pure’ or not is ridiculous. Wild boar probably haven’t been ‘pure’ ever since man domesticated some of their brethren, as interbreeding between ‘wild’ and ‘domestic’ was not very controlled before the modern era. My guess is that medieval (and even ancient) wild boar had ‘domestic pig’ genes too, so it’s silly to insist that reintroduced wild boar be genetically ‘pure’.

(3) “We know exactly how they went extinct and it was us”

The guilt card came out often during the talks, beginning with the first one by Carl Zimmer who said the above quote. Michael Archer of University of New South Wales was the most adamant on this point: “If it’s clear that we exterminated these species, then I think we not only have a moral obligation to see what we could do about it, but I think we’ve got a moral imperative to try to do something if we can.” His talk about the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) and the gastric brooding frog was one of the most interesting among the bunch. He clearly had a passion for his subject and that came out in his moralizing tendencies. I’ve seen this moral argument — we [humans at some time in the past] killed it so we [humans living now] should bring it back — often in reintroduction discourse as well.

(4) “If extinction isn’t forever, some fundamentals change”

Some of the conservation biologists like Stanley Temple of University of Wisconsin-Madison showed some scepticism about de-extinction. It wasn’t that they didn’t think it was possible or that bringing back a species was not good for the species itself, rather they thought it would be a distraction. They were concerned that de-extinction would pull money and people away from mainstream conservation projects and might make extinction seem like a less critical issue. Of course, the same thing has been said about ‘restoration’ as a conservation practice – that it legitimizes ecological destruction since people think they can always put it back later. Yet the speakers all talked about restoration as a canonical conservation practice so maybe it’s more about de-extinction being new than anything else.

Interestingly in these discussions, the speakers rarely discussed ecological function. It seemed like most of the speakers were interested in the animals as animals (i.e. it is a species that is no longer around) rather than what the animal could do in the ecosystem. They did talk about the candidates for de-extinction being ‘keystone species’, but we also heard (like in David Burney’s talk) that ecological surrogates could work equally well as extinct species.

Nor did reintroduction get extensive coverage, even though reintroduction – which is bringing back a species to an area in which it has become extinct – is not all that different from de-extinction (minus the technical genetic engineering bits). Historical efforts to recover and reintroduce the populations of European bison and California condor were couched as de-extinction, even though those species weren’t extinct. At the same time, historians were absent from the speaker list. Henri Kerkdijk-Otten, who is chairman of the Megafauna Foundation and has a master’s degree in history, was the only one with any history credentials but his speech wasn’t historial. Some of the biologists like Archer included historical stories, but it was for background rather than a place to find key insights. I was disappointed in this lacuna since historical reintroduction projects like the ones I’m working on may be able to tell us a lot about why people are interested in bringing back lost species and how species can be re-integrated into former ecosystems. My research so far on the muskox also shows that long-dead species have a different reintroduction context than ones recently killed like the European beaver, so the difference between bringing back the thylacine which died out in 1936 and the mammoth which was gone 10,000 years ago may be greater than just the technological challenges.

I have no doubt that wooly mammoths and other extinct species will be re-created within my lifetime. The question becomes whether they will be only scientific curiosities or actually reintroduced into select habitats. Perhaps historical inquiry into reintroductions in the past will have something to contribute to the answer.

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