In the Forest with a Living Ghost

Our headlamps and flashlights cut through the deep midnight blackness and illuminate stretches of woods in front of us. There was no moon that night, and underneath the cathedral-high canopy of loblolly pines the multitude of starry pinpricks offer no background light for us to work by, so our artificial lights were all we had to illuminate our surroundings. Ahead of us stretched a line of ultra-fine nets designed to catch birds—mist-nets, named for the way the thin mesh seems to shimmer and disappear as you walk up to it at an angle. Hanging low in one of the nets ahead of us was an animated bundle of brown and white; the bundle jerked and twisted as our lights approached, and when I reached for the bundle, a pair of wide, breathtakingly yellow eyes turned and fixed me with an unblinking stare.

It was the season for catching Northern Saw-whet Owls (Aegolius acadius), and that’s precisely what hung in the net. At just after midnight, it was bitter cold—the following morning would be the first of the season with frost. I worked fast, finding the loops of netting caught on the owl’s wings and around its head mostly by touch, and working them off with precise tugs. The feet came last, and I was glad that my fingers were going numb from the cold when the bird flexed its feet rapidly, driving two wickedly thin and curved lead-gray talons into the pad on my middle finger. After the owl was free and my finger, now with small beads of blood welling up from the tiny holes in it, had been extricated from the owl’s grip, I quickly grabbed a soft mesh bag, and placed the bird in it—feet last.

A few hundred feet along the net, a second bird was hanging. Using the same movements as before, I extracted this owl as well, and by the time I had finished that Dan Small, my colleague on this cold night, had finished checking the rest of the nets and was holding a mesh bag of his own, complete with a wriggling, bill-snapping owl. We pile into the truck and take the long, bouncy, dirt trail back to the heated shack we use as our base of operations. From this shack Dan’s wife, Maren Gimpel oversees the Chester River Field Research Station’s Saw-whet Owl banding project. Tonight, she’s already headed out to sleep, but Dan and settle down and shed a few of our outermost layers, before quickly placing small metal bands on the legs of our owls. We take measurements, age the birds, determine their sex, and then send them back out into the night. Banding an owl can take as little as thirty or forty seconds, and yields important information about the health of the bird. After a month or so of banding, we may have data from as many as 200 owls, giving as an accurate picture of the demographic of birds involved in the season’s migration. Banding projects like this one have resulted in incredible information on the ecology of these birds, and the unlikely connections they have to other species across their range. Despite this, the banding of birds, particularly of owls, can be a highly controversial subject. The controversy is largely unnecessary and comes from basic misunderstandings about the treatment of the birds while they’re being handled, about the scientific process, and about conservation.

These misunderstandings don’t just apply to bird banding—they inform and explain many of the current ethical and moral trends in relationship with wild animals, and in our relationship with wilderness in general. In particular, there is a tendency to direct compassion and energy towards the protection and wellbeing of individual animals or individual charismatic locations; individuals that can be identified as vulnerable or mistreated, and which we can emotionally connect with due to their charisma or beauty. This identification comes at the expense of a bigger picture, one which is becoming more and more imperative to pay attention to.

The myriad of threats facing the wilderness we have come to revere and respect are probably known to most readers. Climate change is probably the greatest threat facing humanity today. Sea levels will rise, the most conservative estimates today suggest we have already committed to a five inch rise in most places, and some estimates suggest this could be as high as ten inches. The most recent IUCN checklist update suggests that the world’s most popular cage birds, including some that have been considered common up until recently, may be heading for extinction within the next fifty years. Deforestation and exploitation of the land for agriculture, mining, and oil drilling have been threats since the inception of the modern environmental movement, and they remain significant ones today. But while these pressures may be familiar, what may not be is that fact that our world has already started to crumble under them. A third of amphibians may be faced with imminent extinction, along with a fifth of mammals, as many as a third of known invertebrates, nearly three-quarters of studied plants. We are firmly in the grasp of what is being called the sixth mass extinction, or the modern extinction crisis.

To say that combatting this extinction will be difficult would be an understatement. Many conservation experts think that doing so is all but impossible. It may be that they are right, and that those still fighting do so in vain, without a realistic grasp of the situation. But if that is the case, then I fall among the latter. I think that a not-insignificant source of the problem lies in a very basic misconception about what the point of conservation and preservation is. Most professional conservationists agree that the point of conservation is to protect life on the species level. This may seem intuitive, but log on to the Facebook pages or websites of most zoos or bird banding station or news agencies reporting on stories about zoos and animal research and you are likely to see evidence to the contrary. A zoo will post a photo of their new, critically endangered, Spanish Lynx (Lynx pardinus) kittens and someone in the comments will sound off that it’s no big deal—it’s a tragedy in fact, for the babies have been born in captivity.

To borrow a phrase, today’s zoos are arks. They exist to weather the great flood of our time, which is the extinction crisis. It is true that this was not always the case. The first zoos were built purely for entertainment—usually the entertainment of the rich and powerful. But that hasn’t been true for much of the last half century, at least. Now, what species can be exhibited and bred is dictated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the decisions are not made on a whim. Captivity is taken seriously, for obvious reasons. If the animals aren’t being cared for properly they won’t breed. If they’re not being cared for properly, patrons won’t visit the zoos. It’s in the best interest of zoos and aquariums to be the model of proper treatment for the animals they exhibit, and they are. But there are factors of this treatment that can confound those and give the perception of mistreatment. The fact that Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) must be denned for the winter—effectively sealing them in a small, warm, dark room for three or four months straight—is easily taken for mistreatment. In reality though, this is necessary for breeding. A bear won’t allow its body to develop a pregnancy if it is not denned in such a way. What’s lost in translation is that the action, while it may confine the bear for a time, leading to mild discomfort (the bear will eventually simply hibernate), polar bears may not exist as a species without such measures. Threatened with climate change, their habitat in the wild will wholly cease to exist. Their only hope as a species is by the drastic measures being taken by zoos.

Perhaps zoos are an all-around dramatic example. I will say that I really do understand a lot of the concern they generate from animal-lovers, even if I do not agree with it. Let’s revisit our owls, for a moment. Northern Saw-whet Owls are poorly understood birds. Most expert suggest that they are relatively common, but admit that very little is known about their specific breeding requirements, particularly along the fragmented southern edge of their range. One of the things that we do know, is that in the heart of their breeding range in eastern and central Canada, they are closely tied to the population cycle of the Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi). This vole has a population cycle believed to be tied to cone crops in conifer species—when the cone crops drop a bumper crop, the vole population soars, offering the owls an astounding amount of food. They take advantage of this overabundance by having as many as three times as many chicks as during other years. In the winter all of these young, inexperienced owls migrate south en masse, as they are unable to compete with more experienced adults on the breeding range.

It is suspected that these cycles are about to experience a major disruption though, potentially creating a cataclysmic situation for owls and voles alike. Currently this cycle runs very predictably. Every four years there is a vole boom and the owls boom the following year. This is followed by a slow decrease in the vole numbers, again accompanied by a slow decrease in owl breeding success. All of this is related to the cone crops, which are likely triggered by formerly regular fluctuations in moisture levels. All of that, however will be thrown to hell with climate change. The disruption of the cone cycles will disrupt the vole cycle, which will disrupt the owls. In order to monitor and look for the first signs of this cataclysm, owl banding is crucial. It’s incredibly easy to see breaks in the trends through such a direct monitoring strategy, as it’s easy to see sudden changes in the weights and overall fitness displayed by birds within a sampling population.

All this being said, there is a very vocal opposition to banding birds in general, and owls specifically. Owls are shy creatures and their disposition towards solitude and reclusivity leads them to be vulnerable to stress during the banding process. Furthermore, it is true that on very rare occasions, birds are eaten out of the nets by larger species of owls and that during the banding process they become slightly disoriented by the lights, sometimes becoming slightly dazed and requiring a short recuperation time prior to releasing them. Despite this, the rate of owls dying while in captivity or in a net is very low at any given banding station. And when these owls are passed on to rehabbers for examination, it is often found that these birds have underlying injuries.

From a certain perspective, the backlash towards banders working with owls is understandable. But the fact remains that banding is the only effective way to study owl populations. Traditional breeding bird surveys and vocal-based point counts simply don’t work—the birds are too unpredictable and patchily distributed. In order to understand, and thus save the species, birds have to be caught, banded, examined, and then released. There is simply no other way around it. The protection of the species has to take precedence over the concern for the discomfort of the individual bird.

I want to acknowledge that I am fully aware of how unpalatable this is. I want to acknowledge that those who work in the professions I have mentioned are fully aware of the risks involved. I have watched seasoned bird banders stand for hours, refusing to make their catch of shorebirds because they’re worried about rising tides. And I’ve watched the same bander, steaming in the heat, take water from her workers and distribute it in spray bottles to mist the birds still waiting to be banded. I’ve seen zoo vets agonize over decisions about the care of their animals. Whether to delivery lion (Panthera leo) cubs in an emergency procedure and risk the mother’s life, or wait and risk the cubs to save the beloved mother. None of these people go into their jobs expecting it to be easy, and all know their work will be scrutinized. But there is nothing else that can be done.

There is one major complication that deserves attention. It is this: de-extinction. De-extinction is all the rage in some circles. Many researchers think that the act of bringing a species back from extinction has great symbolic, as well as literal, power. We can return a species from the brink, as we have on occasion shown. To be able to bring them back from beyond the brink… Is the stuff of science fiction. Arguably, doing so would be the ultimate in mastering the mantra of doing everything for the species. There is no individual currently left, so the act of bringing back even one individual would be giving a species that had lost its chance a new one. However, this is arguable. The one and only time this has been successfully done, the species winked out of existence again mere minutes later. From the species perspective—and that of the individual animal—bringing about an event with such a likelihood is crueler than it is hopeful. Furthermore, introducing species to an environment from which they have been gone, potentially for thousands of years, could be more disruptive than it is helpful. The habitats have evolved in the absence of these species, and returning them could throw this new balance entirely out of proportion.

It would be nice to think that we could save all the species in the world without keeping a one in captivity. It would be nice to think that every species in the world could be saved. We are coming to the realization that this is not the case. Species cannot exist in the wild in perpetuity any more. Many of them may have no longer than a few decades left in their natural environs. By and large, this is the fault of humans. Our actions have pushed species to extinction already and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. By our actions alone can this mass extinction be mitigated. Among the measures that need to be taken, the moderation of climate change, protection of habitat, and yes, captive breeding and invasive research of imperiled species are all critical.

But just as critical is a reevaluation of our moral feelings towards wild animals. The prospects of their existence are rapidly changing. To ignore that and continue to tout our own equality with them is dangerous. We are not the same as animals. We should empathize with them and understand that they feel pain, but we should also acknowledge that we know things they never will. They don’t know they are not-so-slowly fading from existence, and we do. We need to trust that we are, in fact doing the right thing. That we are doing what’s best–what’s best for the species. For without the species, there will soon be no individuals for us to agonize over.






Extinct Needs to Remain Forever

There seems to be one thing that fascinates and terrifies the scientists of the natural world more than almost anything else: extinction. Extinction can be looked at as the pinnacle of evolution. When a species has failed—when there is absolutely nothing left for it to contribute—a slow and steady decline begins. Evolution removes species naturally through extinction, and in doing so, maintains a healthy and viable ecosystem. However, extinction is also a terrible side-effect of the actions of humans. When extinction is caused while a species is still contributing to the health of an ecosystem, it has dire repercussions. This is the tragedy of human-caused extinction. It isn’t just the loss of a species before its time; it is the corruption of a natural process. In either case, extinction has a definite finality. Extinct means forever—or it did until very recently. Now, in today’s world of rapidly evolving technologies for genetic manipulation, we are faced with a full set of new questions that would have seemed outlandish just a few decades ago.

De-extinction is probably the flashiest (and most controversial) development in conservation and wildlife management in history. In an article that ran in the New York Times in February of this year—which has been widely credited with introducing the concept of de-extinction to the general public—Nathaniel Rich characterized de-extinction as an “ambitious, interdisciplinary and slightly loopy project”, which seems something of an understatement when you pause to think about it. De-extinction is exactly what it sounds like—bringing a living creature that has disappeared from our world back into it. For anyone familiar with Jurassic Park, it is a concept straight out of science fiction. It isn’t just ambitious, its borderline audacious.

De-extinction can be “achieved” through a variety of processes. The more traditional method, are somatic cell nuclear transfer, is also the primary method of cloning. In this process, a non-reproductive cell (somatic cell) from the mother has its nucleus replaced with the nucleus of a reproductive cell from the animal to be cloned. The cell is then given an electric shock to promote division and inserted into the mother animal. This technique can only be used, however, on species for which reproductive cells exist—species which have only recently gone extinct, in other words. For species for which that kind of genetic material is not existent, another, more complicated method is used. First the extant species most closely related to the extinct one must be identified. After this, the genomes of the two species must be examined, and the differences between the two inactivated by replacing the segments of code in the extant species with analogous segments from the extinct species. Afterwards, somatic cell nuclear transfer is used, with the main difference being that instead of a reproductive cell from the clone individual being used, the fabricated genetic code is inserted into the somatic cell.

All that scientific jargon aside, the appeal is obvious and deeply tempting. For a real conservationist, there are few things more troubling than seeing a stuffed specimen of a passenger pigeon or sea cow, and the desire to see one of them alive is overwhelming. Furthermore, unlike so many conservation management schemes, de-extinction is actually monetarily possible. Because de-extinction is so ostentatious and futuristic, it attracts donors that would otherwise ignore wildlife issues and conservation concerns for instance, silicon valley types who are heavily invested in the technology being used, and pharmaceutical companies interested in the implications the genetic manipulations might have on future drug-development.

There are also more esoteric—or at least more difficult to prove—arguments in favor of de-extinction. Many of de-extinction’s supporters argue that we have a moral responsibility to bring back species that we condemned to extinction. We had the power to drive them to extinction, and now that we have the power to undo it, we should use it. Rich describes it as “grasping for a silver lining” in a history dotted by conservation failures and relates how a leading conservation ecologist, Stewart Brand, likens de-extinction, and its effect on people, to the re-introduction of some of America’s formerly lost megafauna “it gives people hope when rewilding occurs — when the wolves come back, when the buffalo come back”. When discussing de-extinction with the general public, it is not surprising that this idea of giving people hope and a sense of morality is one of the most commonly heard discussion-points. There is also a very commonly-heard argument about biodiversity. It has long been understood that the more species there are in existence the stronger biodiversity is, and the healthier the planet is. These arguments aren’t really possible to prove—the first is a moral statement, and the second isn’t so much a law of nature as it is a widely accepted theory or hypothesis on the way the world works. But they sound appealing and comforting, and get passed around extensively.

All of this being said, the arguments against de-extinction are many. In April, 2013 National Geographic’s Carl Zimmer wrote a cover story about de-extinction. It was ahead-of-its time, preceding Rich’s article by nearly a year, and so did not gain nearly the press that it probably deserved. In the article, Zimmer begins by describing the first successful attempt to revive an extinct species. A species of mountain goat from Spain was revived when a clone of the endling—the last existing member of a species—was delivered by a closely-related species. The goat returned from the dead, but only for ten minutes. A severe birth defect caused the young goat to suffocate within minutes, and the species was once again lost. This story set the tone for most of Zimmer’s article. He discusses in detail the methods for bringing back species. He is careful to emphasize both their difficulty and their plausibility—something which is common among the opponents of de-extinction. The party-line for Zimmer and like-minded individuals is that while the science is there, it’s not as easy as proponents make it out to be.

This assertion has its values. When you are dealing with controversy with such wide-ranging implications as de-extinction, perspective needs to exist, and the difficulties that would be faced are massive. However, this is not the most convincing argument against de-extinction, and it is at this point that I will turn to an article from May 2012, not about de-extinction, in order to prove a point. Leslie Kaufman ran an article in the New York Times about zoos and the way they manage their collections. She opens her piece by relaying the stories of two attractive and critically endangered primates. One of which is being saved and one which is not. She follows this up by remarking how zookeepers, vets, and collection managers “are increasingly being pressed into making cold calculations about which animals are the most crucial to save”. Zoos, which had, in the past, been imagined as places of entertainment and education, are now adding “modern Noah’s Ark” to their job descriptions. And deciding which animals to let onto this ark is a painful and desperately difficult decision. One of the problems zoos face is balancing this new responsibility as an ark with their more traditional roles.

In doing this, zoos have always faced criticism from factions that think they should be more devoted to conservation and not as interested in providing entertainment. The problem with this is that zoos did not develop to be arks. They developed as entertainment facilities reliant on public donations, admissions sales, and state grants. They certainly cannot gather the first two sources of income without spending a large amount of their time and resources on keeping zoo visitors happy.

Let us, for a moment, investigate the case of the St. Louis Zoo—one of America’s largest and more successful zoological parks. Despite being so large and well respected, this zoo faces the same struggle as any others. These include coming up with new ways of attracting visitors to the facility to meet the bottom lines. At present, the St. Louis Zoo is known in the zoo business for ostentatious and modern exhibits, displaying high-attraction species of conservation concern, including severely endangered black-and-white ruffed lemurs. The investment of money into breeding and maintaining appropriate exhibits for these species is huge, but having these species displayed brings in large numbers of guests. It has the added bonus of contributing to the conservation of these animals. Generally speaking, however, if zoos must choose between conservation and monetary success, they will choose the latter. An example of this comes straight from Kaufman’s article. She notes that while the St. Louis Zoo is highly committed to conservation, they are currently in the process of building $20 million dollar (around 40% of its total operating budget) polar bear exhibit despite the facts that “its last polar bear died in 2009 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to remove or rescue the bears from the wild”. Additionally, polar bears are known to be quite difficult to breed in captivity, and individuals whose genes are not already overrepresented in the captive population are rare, so acquiring captive bears from other facilities is quite difficult.

Given this, if the St. Louis Zoo were to gain able to create a clone of a mammoth or genetically engineer one using recovered DNA, it is not entirely unreasonable that they might funnel some funds away from the ruffed lemur projects—a, presumably, less monetarily productive program. And if, after this is done, it is proven the mammoths brings in more money than the lemurs, which is all but guaranteed, it is not unreasonable to imagine the lemur breeding program being significantly scaled back, if not entirely phased out. For a population which is not abundantly common in captivity and which is facing near certain extinction in the wild, such a blow could prove fatal for the survival of the entire species.

The scenario outlined above has not happened anywhere yet, thankfully. But it is not hard to imagine how it might. The individuals who run the de-extinction programs are generally not conservation biologists or wildlife vets. They are computer scientists and geneticists who happen to like animals, or some facet of the natural world. As such, their primary interests are bringing extinct animals back and not the consequences these acts may have. No one seems to have thought about, for example, the space that would be needed to exhibit a mammoth in captivity, nor what its specific dietary or medical requirements would be. This, when combined with the issue of the disruption to the current conservation system, becomes, perhaps, the most convincing argument against de-extinction and which jumps to the forefront of my mind when I think of why it makes me uncomfortable.

Yet, this is also the greatest challenge facing the opponents of de-extinction. They are attempting to be accurate and precise and, thus, un-emotional. This is the sciences’ greatest flaw and strength. It is truthful to a fault. Scientists opposed to de-extinction continue to argue against it by saying that it is possible but difficult and flawed. This is perfectly true and relatively unbiased. But the less-constrained and arguably less professional and scientific proponents of de-extinction continue to appeal to the guilt of the public with moral arguments. As long as emotional cries for action are met with quiet and measured responses, the opponents are fighting a losing battle. The opponents need to embrace the more emotional argument I have outlined above—namely the devastating effects de-extinction’s widespread implementation could have on current conservation practices.

De-extinction is a scientific wonder. The very fact that we can bring back entire species from the grave is mind-boggling. And I must admit that it would be both morally gratifying and very reassuring to see a flock of passenger pigeons blotting out the sun again after one hundred years of absence from this world. However, I also recognize that the sentiment expressed by William Beebe, one of the most prominent naturalists of the twentieth century, when he espoused that “when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again” is what has saved countless species from extinction. Threatening to change that now could unbalance the management of endangered species in a spectacular way. If we know that extinction is reversible, there is no moral imperative for us to act to keep species from disappearing. Extinction will become a catalogue of things that the human race has “put on the shelf”; a list of footnotes to be saved for future examination. Ironically, the prevention of future extinctions is reliant on the infallibility of a sober and chilling fact: extinct has always meant forever.