Happy New Year, welcome 2014!
It has now been 100 years since the beginning of World War 1, making 1914 a memorable year in history, but 1914 also marks a memorable year in the world of ornithology for one type of bird in particular, for that was the year it became extinct.
Are you thinking of the Dodo? The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) is the bird that most people would name if asked for an extinct species of bird, and of course, it is extinct but unfortunately they are not the only species to suffer this fate. People recall the Dodo as its extinction was relatively recent and caused by the interference (via hunting) of man. However, despite controversy surrounding the date of the Dodo’s extinction, it was way before 1914, with the last possible sighting being towards the end of the 1680s. So it’s not as recent as todays Find it Friday, that also became extinct due to over hunting by man:
In 1914 the Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) became extinct, 14 years after the last wild bird was shot the last captive pigeon, named Martha, died. After, shockingly, 50,000 of these birds were being shot a day (!!!) for their feathers, meat or for sport, when Martha died the species ceased to exist. It’s a harrowing thought; I remember watching a video of the last Thylacine, aka Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) from 1933 as a child and being overwhelmed with sadness that he was the last of his kind due to no fault of theirs, but ours. (See the video on Youtube HERE.)
These skins are not the skins of Passenger pigeons but of the common (not currently at risk of extinction) Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus); two males and a juvenile female. We also have the skin of a much smaller, male Stock pigeon (Columba oenas). The only collection item we have here in relation to an extinct bird is the egg of a Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis). This is quite extraordinary as after the extinction of these flightless birds in the 1850’s, now only 78 skins, 24 skeletons and 75 eggs are left in existence; and one of them is here!
The skins of our pigeons were all collected in 1898, most likely via ‘active collecting’ (shooting), a way that no museum would advocate in modern times with most sticking to salvage (road kill, natural death) or purchases. They came to our collection via a purchase in 1938. Even though we have bird mounts in our collection you will notice that these skins are stored in sealed bags, they are literally just the skin of the birds.
Skins are by far more useful to science and fruitful for a collection to hold than mounted specimens. Museums are about exhibitions and displays but at their core they are about education, exploration and research. When an animal is stuffed the skin is often treated with damaging chemicals, or if not, in this form they are more at risk of damage, difficult to store, UV damage etc. A preserved skin is usually used for the ‘holotype’ of a species. This holotype is usually a sample that was used when initial identification was made and the species described; it is a typical example and so following members of the species can be compared to this to be identified. (The New York Botanical Garden defines ‘types’ really well HERE.) In the same way the samples can be used to explore evolution traits in species and avian taxonomy explored. This research can be on going and can be re-explored, confirmed and with new advances in science, approached in new ways as the specimen is always there.
Each preserved skin should, with the correct conservation and care, be a quality specimen for at least 100 years, meaning that the care for these collections in the past, and indeed now, is in foresight as we do not know now where scientific exploration will be in 100 years, nor did the person who collected our pigeons all them years ago. Since they joined our collection amazing breakthroughs in science using preserved skin specimens have been made. The feathers have been studied to such an extent that they can be used to identify various things; the chemical levels can be used to chart human influence on populations, ie mercury or pesticide percentages or urbanisation’s effects on migration patterns. Even plumage patterns and colour measurements have been explored and the colour of feathers that are now fossilised but once belonged to the long extinct dinosaurs of 65 million years ago have been identified! Imagine that!
And now, even more amazing advances are just on the horizon; could a skin specimen help bring back a species from extinction? From the dead?
DNA in museums samples can be used to genetically match at risk species to another species, not completely but to a degree that would allow selective breeding to be considered. However, if this animal has already fallen victim to extinction there is hope that DNA in quality samples can be used to basically clone the species, to be placed with a host mother. This has already happened to some degree of success with a Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica – which became extinct in 2000) and a domestic goat. You can read more about this attempt at “de-extinction” on the Natural History Museums website HERE, alongside other examples of conservation.