Everyone remembers the dodo – we’re forced to merely 'remember' the flightless bird because it was killed into extinction in 1662 less than a century after European sailors found them on the island of Mauritius east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The dodo became a symbol for both senseless extinction and hope that one still existed somewhere in the world. While a living specimen has not been found, the chance to assuage our guilt just went up with the discovery of a “fantastic specimen” of dodo DNA that may make de-extinction possible. Will they think of US as dodos?
“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.”
Speaking during a Royal Society of Medicine webinar, Beth Shapiro, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, announced to a Royal Society of Medicine webinar the exciting news that the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) genome had been sequenced and will be published soon at the Natural History Museum of Denmark – the “fantastic specimen” of well-preserved DNA came from a source in Denmark. Bringing back the dodo has been her public quest since the publication of her book, “How To Clone A Mammoth,” where she said:
“The dodo is a special case for de-extinction because it, more than any other species, is the international symbol of human-caused extinction.”
The dodo and its closest genetic relative, the extinct Rodrigues solitaire, formed the flightless bird subfamily Raphinae that were surprisingly part of the same family as pigeons and doves – its closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon. That species could help de-extinct the dodo, although Shapiro says the bird reproduction system in complex – while a number of mammal species have been cloned, no birds have because the yolk of an egg is too big to put under a microscope in order to find the microscopic nucleus or bird embryo living inside it. Some other technique must be found, but Shapiro says she’s confident it will be.
Those eggs were the main reason why dodos went extinct. While the common image is sailors and settlers gorging on the plump, slow-moving flightless birds (resulting in the Portuguese sailors nicknaming it “dodo,” which means a fool or a slow-thinking person), the real culprits were the dogs, cats and rats they brought with them which saw the large dodo eggs laid in mud as easy pickings. Those creatures (and probably some humans too) would have to be removed from the island of Mauritius to reestablish the birds there – the availability of their ideal environment makes the success of de-extinction the dodo more attainable. But still not certain.
And even if the dodo is de-extincted, humans will still be ‘dodos’ when it comes to so many other endangered species.