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The next de-extinction target: The dodo

Image of a medium sized bird with iridescent feathers
Enlarge / The Nicobar pigeon, the dodo’s closest living relative, is quite a bit smaller and capable of flight.

Colossal is a company that got its start with a splashy announcement about plans to do something that many scientists consider impossible with current technology, all in the service of creating a product with no clear market potential: the woolly mammoth. Since that time, the company has settled into a potentially viable business model and set its sights on a species where the biology is far more favorable: the thylacine, a marsupial predator that went extinct in the early 1900s.

Today, the company is announcing a third de-extinction target and its return to the realm of awkward reproductive biology that will force the project to clear many technical hurdles: It hopes to bring back the dodo.

A shifting symbol

The dodo was a large (up to 1 meter tall), flightless bird that evolved on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. As European sailors reached the islands, it quickly became a source of food for them and the invasive species that accompanied them. It went extinct within a century of the first descriptions reaching Europe.

Its lack of fear for humans initially turned it into a metaphor for foolishness. But as concerns for human-caused extinctions and ecosystem disruptions have risen, the metaphor has shifted to one where the dodo represents a preventable tragedy caused by human thoughtlessness. It’s that latter metaphor that made its de-extinction appealing to Colossal. “I think a lot of it is the name recognition,” said Beth Shapiro, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who’s collaborating with Colossal. “You know, I think people don’t really care about extinctions, in as much as it doesn’t impact them personally. But the dodo somehow has this real draw to people.

“By targeting something that is so famous—really the icon of human-caused extinction—I think we’re going to draw more people into thinking about it,” Shapiro told Ars. (She’s also collaborating on a separate project that’s looking into de-extincting a second of these icons, the passenger pigeon.)

In the case of the thylacine and mammoth, Colossal made the case that returning these keystone species to the habitats they once inhabited will alter the habitat significantly, changing which species can survive and thrive there. The company’s argument for restoring the dodo is, in many ways, the converse: We will have to restore the ecosystem before a revived dodo can survive there.

“If [dodos] are to be able to reestablish thriving populations on Mauritius, it’s going to require removing many of the invasive species that were introduced there. And in that way, this project will help to reinvigorate and revive these ecosystems,” Shapiro said. “By making sure that dodos can survive there, we’ll have to create a habitat that is also beneficial to other endemic Mauritian flora and fauna that maybe are struggling to survive because of the invasive species rather than because of the absence of dodos.”

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