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Geneticists Want to Bring the Great Auk Back From the Dead

The great auk could live once more, but is that such a good idea?

In 1785, less than a century before great auks would be declared extinct, English explorer Cartwright eerily predicted the penguin-like birds' swift demise.

"But it has been customary of late years, for several crews of men to live all summer on that island, for the sole purpose of killing birds for the sake of their feathers, the destruction which they have made is incredible. If a stop is not soon put to that practice, the whole breed will be diminished to almost nothing."

Such was the fate of the great auk, a bygone species last seen alive in 1852. Bones, drawings, and historical evidence paint a colorful picture of what the bird looked like, but we eventually accepted that we would never know, for sure, how it behaved and thrived.

Great auk, John James Audubon, Birds of America, 1785-1851. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, this might not be the end of the tragic species. According to The Telegraph, a group of scientists plans to resurrect the great auk using genetic information extracted from fossils and preserved organs. By "editing" the bird's DNA into its closest living relative, the razor-billed auk, the team believes it can breed the species back into existence.

An American biomolecular organization called Revive & Restore is behind the ambitious effort to repopulate the great auk. The group is self-described as a conservation collaborative, and specializes in "genetic rescue," which builds genetic diversity among endangered or extinct species. If successful, scientists want to return the great auk to the Farne Islands, located off the coast of England, where the seabird is known to have bred.

"It's one of the very few flightless birds of the northern hemisphere and it obviously played a very important part in the ecosystem of the North Atlantic," Matt Ridley, a journalist who is involved with the project, told The Telegraph. "It would be rather wonderful to feel that we could bring it back."

Internal organs of two great auks at the Zoological Museum of Copenhagen. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The fate of the great auk, or Pinguinus impennis, should be a familiar one. Once upon a time, great auks saturated the rocky shores of the North Atlantic. These flightless birds looked a bit like penguins, which is how they earned their misnomer, and lived in colonies where they would mate for life. Several pressures, against which great auks were defenseless, contributed to their extinction, but over-hunting would be the thing that eventually killed them.

As with the dodo or the thylacine, humans have become obsessed with extinct animals—mainly, how to bring them back. The new discipline, termed "de-extinction," is as controversial as it is young. Skeptics doubt that today's ecosystems could support archaic species, while supporters declare that it's our duty to return them to the wild. With precious little conservation funding, shouldn't we prioritize species that are already living? Or could de-extinction be one option in an all-of-the-above approach?

"Species can either fail to thrive or thrive too well, or in a way that humans don't like," George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University, once told The Audubon Society. "If you bring back one species that causes the demise of another, you get a zero sum or even negative sum game."

But the fantasy made popular by Jurassic Park isn't so far-fetched anymore. Theoretically, if enough viable genetic material exists, scientists can sequence an extinct animal's DNA and, through selective breeding or cloning, reengineer a version of the original species. Revive & Restore already has plans to de-extinct the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon.

"The conservation story could shift from negative to positive, from constant whining and guilt-tripping to high fives and new excitement," Stewart Brand, a co-founder of Revive & Restore, wrote in an op-ed defending de-extinction.

Still, while a world with great auks could be a better one, can we be so sure that history won't repeat itself? Perhaps it isn't fair to drag a species back into another mass extinction.

At the very least, it's good to know that someone's working on a backup plan.