National Geographic April 2013, Part 1

I definitely am starting my fifth year of National Geographic issues here. And things should pick up soon. Alex is back in school, so we won’t be going anywhere together on most of my weekdays off. This means that I will return to my hiking-and-listening-to-19th-century-National-Geographic-issues trips. I should be done with 1889 by the end of 2016. I hope.

Bringing Them Back to Life, by Carl Zimmer, photographs by Robb Kendrick

The “them” of the title here is extinct species. Humanity is causing, directly or indirectly, the loss of species, perhaps on a daily, or even hourly, basis (depending on the model you use). Most of these species are likely to be bacteria, invertebrates, or even plants that were never identified in the first place. But the fact remains that there are hundreds of species that we can identify that have gone extinct and it would be nice to stop the resource use (particularly deforestation and rerouting of water) that causes these extinctions.

About a century ago, we lost the passenger pigeon. At one time, there were millions of passenger pigeons in North America, and then westerners moved in and started eating them. Within a couple of hundred years, they were all gone. So, since they once existed in such high numbers and because their loss was relatively recent, this is the example given of how manipulation of rock pigeon genes could create new passenger pigeons, or at least a new bird with the same genetic traits as the passenger pigeon. It would look like a passenger pigeon and likely have some of the same behaviors as the passenger pigeon. Hopefully it would fill the same niche in the ecosystem that the passenger pigeon once filled. At worst, it seems to me that it would be a prettier rock pigeon (and I say this as someone who finds rock pigeons to be a fairly nice-looking bird).

Will this kind of manipulation ever successfully be done? Well, it’s three years later and we haven’t seen the return of the passenger pigeon, so it doesn’t look like it’s been attempted. But perhaps someone someday will attempt it and it will be successful. One of the problems with the plan is that they would have to produce a lot of passenger pigeons in that first generation to succeed, because passenger pigeons naturally formed large flocks.

And even if we do see the return of the passenger pigeon or the Western black rhinoceros, or the Pinata Island tortoise, it will be a long, long time indeed before resources are such that we would have a Jurassic Park-type revival or even the return of animals that coexisted with humans such as, well, the mammoth. Hey, that leads nicely into the next article . . . .

Of Mammoths and Men, by Brook Larmer, photographs by Evgenia Arbugaeva

No, we aren’t talking about the return of the mammoth from extinction. Instead, Of Mammoths and Men is a profile of the residents of northern Siberia who hunt mammoth tusks for a living. As of 2013, a mammoth tusk could earn a hunter at least $60,000.  The hunter that we follow has an exceptionally good year while we follow him, bringing in at least $150,000 worth of mammoth tusks.

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