The great auk was a charming, penguin-like bird that swam the waters and waddled along the shores of the North Atlantic. By the mid-1800s, humans had driven the species to extinction, and the birds left a great auk-shaped hole in local ecosystems. Now, a team of scientists is hoping to bring them back. 

Great Auks 2016 09 01

Great auk breeding colonies once dotted the coasts of Canada, Britian and many islands in between. Unfortunately for the birds, their feathers, meat, fat and oil made them tempting targets for human hunters. The last time a great auk was seen alive was in 1852; today, only bones, preserved specimens and old stories remain.

Those bones and specimens are of great interest to researchers from a non-profit organisation called Revive & Restore, who have their sights set on the "de-extinction" of the great auk.

It doesn't work like Jurassic Park; without intact living cells, an extinct species cannot be cloned. But the organisation's scientists hope to use great auk DNA to edit the genome of a close living relative, the razorbill. If it works, they may be able to breed these modified razorbills into a new species very much like the lost auks. 

Razorbill 2016 09 01
The razorbill is the closest living relative of the great auk. Image: C. E. Timothy Paine, Flickr

Revive & Restore's researchers are no strangers to what they call "genetic rescue". One of their major projects focuses on the black-footed ferret, a species whose numbers were once brought so low it's astonishing that they survived. Though the ferrets are now supported by intensive breeding programmes, experts worry the animals lack genetic diversity, which is why Revive & Restore studies ferret DNA looking for strategies to keep populations of these little mammals genetically healthy.

The company is also very interested in extinct species, and there are few more famous de-extinction candidates than the passenger pigeon. Before they were wiped out by hunting, the birds would fly over North American landscapes in their billions, the flocks so large they darkened the skies. When these vast flocks descended on forests, they would disturb them much the way a wildfire does, removing stagnation and making room for new growth. Revive & Restore, along with other de-extinction teams, is hoping to return the pigeon to its place of importance in such environments. 

The plan for the auks is similar. If they can be recreated, the birds will be reintroduced to the Farne Islands, a protected area that's currently home to the auks' cousins, the razorbills, as well as Atlantic puffins, another species threatened by human activity.

Farne Island Colony 2016 09 01
The Farne Islands are home to over 20 species of breeding seabirds, razorbills and puffins. Image: Andrew Bone, Flickr

The return of the auks, the de-extinction team argues, could restore some of the North Atlantic's lost biodiversity, and perhaps alleviate some of our own guilty feelings about killing them off in the first place.

"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," journalist Matt Ridley, who is involved in the project, tells The Telegraph. "It would be rather wonderful to feel that we could bring it back." 

The field of de-extinction is new – and controversial. Proponents say advances in genetic technology could allow us to bring back crucial species to struggling ecosystems, and undo some of the damage we've wrought on nature. But many critics worry that the ability to bring extinct species to life would encourage an even more flippant attitude toward the environment, and more crucially, that conservation efforts need to focus on still-living species.

Should we bring great auks and other lost species back from the dead? Or are conservationists' limited resources better spent on the wildlife we have left? With the fantasy of de-extinction on the brink of becoming reality, the time for debate is now.  


Top header image: Wikimedia Commons

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