Extinction is forever

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 1:30pm

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As the apricot tree in my yard explodes in white flowers each spring and my birthday comes and goes, millions of birds fly over my little town, nestled on the banks of their ancient roosting grounds. Half a million sandhill cranes sleep and feed on an 80-mile stretch of the Platte River each spring in the heart of Nebraska. 80% of the cranes’ global population lands here to feast on corn waste, and they gain around 10% of their body weight for their continent-crossing journey from Mexico to Siberia and Canada. Millions of Canadian Geese (the bird, not the jacket) and almost 400 other species accompany them on the Central Flyway Migration. For weeks in early spring, the sky fills with the honking of ducks and geese in massive arrowhead formations hundreds of birds long. 

Among these 10 million migrating animals are around 300 of the rarest creatures on the planet. The stoic, bald-headed whooping crane also feeds in rural corn fields and roosts on the sandy banks of the Platte. The fact their small flock still exists and migrates here is one of the most magnificent accomplishments of conservation. While a whooping crane spotting is still news-worthy in Nebraska, their small flock dwarfs the one that once existed. When scientists began to collect eggs from the wild to begin a last-ditch captive breeding program in the late 1960s, fewer than 30 cranes remained. With no guidance from their parents in the wild, the species’ hatchlings had to be raised from scratch. The customs and traditions of the crane, formed over millions of years of evolution, had to be taught to the captive chicks by researchers if they were to ever be reintroduced into the wild. 

As magnificent as a peacock’s tail feathers, whooping cranes’ intricate dances that accompany their whoops of love are touching signs of affection between life-long pairs. After researchers faced difficulties getting captive cranes to mate, they faced the challenge of teaching this man-made generation these dances and whoops. So, in full whooping crane regalia, shameless conservationists danced and whooped in front of the captive chicks. This would become the customary uniform for the chicks’ human caretakers, as cranes were fed and raised by a sock-puppet version of their parents.

After decades of trial-and-error resulting in propagating a large enough population to release into the wild, conservationists reached another dilemma: How to teach a bird population to migrate. Using a one-person aircraft, they escorted flocks of cranes along the same path their great-great-grandparents had flown before them. The pilot would fly wing-to-wing with the world’s largest cranes along their migratory route, teaching them to stop at places like the Platte along the way. While still an endangered species, migratory and nonmigratory populations of the whooping crane now number around 800, making them a true success story. The monumental cost and effort to breed these complex animals also serves as a warning for the irreversible consequences of pushing a species to the edge of extinction or beyond.

With over a million animals facing extinction, many conservationists are scrambling to not only save existing species but also resurrect recently extinct ones. The woolly mammoth is one that is in the process of being returned to life. With multiple sources of DNA found in frozen specimens, researchers are altering modern day elephant DNA with mammoth DNA to create an elephant that could inhabit similar environments. With shaggy hair and large tusks, they will likely fulfill our vision of what these prehistoric creatures looked like, but they will still have the mannerisms of  elephants. While captive crane chicks are not easy to mimic, it will likely be a much more difficult and expensive endeavor to teach a 250-pound newborn elephant how to be a mammoth. These missing links in behavior and knowledge should be taken into heavy consideration when bringing them back. The expenses of raising a non-migratory whooping crane to adulthood clock in at $94,000 per crane, so what will it take to teach a massive, hairy elephant adapted for the Ice Age to fit into a modern-day society confronting global warming?

The quagga, a South African subspecies of zebra, is another such animal poised to see a comeback. Hunted to extinction just a century ago during the European colonization of South Africa, it once roamed the nation’s plains in large herds. Scientists hope to selectively breed zebras that look like quagga, which looks like a zebra with brown hindquarters, until the subspecies is brought back. The same troubles that face the woolly mammoth face the quagga, which has no living role model to pass on the traits that had molded it into the species it once was. 

When any animal population vanishes from an area, generations worth of knowledge about the region vanishes with them. Animals do not aimlessly wander the places they inhabit but are often experts on particular facets of their ecosystems. Much of what requires researchers to dedicate large amounts of time and money to figure out about an ecosystem is already well-known by the local inhabitants. After all, who knows the location of Nichols Arboretum’s acorn-producing oaks better than the squirrels and chipmunks who spend their days scouring the forest canopy? And who could better identify the species of bats that flutter about Ann Arbor better than a wide-eyed owl? Animals are taught by other members of their kind, learn themselves or instinctively know the best places to hunt, graze, play, hide and mate within their familiar areas. This creates a tapestry of knowledge spanning generations and greatly influences behavior. Losing this knowledge is an often understated consequence of extreme endangerment and extinction.

While animal behaviorists can try to simulate the experience an animal would have in its natural habitat, there is no way for a human to ever fully reassemble the legacy that is lost. This is why saving animals before they become endangered, or worse, extinct, is so integral to maintaining a species’ existence. What animals like the whooping crane, giant panda and the American bison lost when their tapestry of knowledge was disrupted is millions of years of generational secrets and traditions that can never be retaught.  

The whooping crane is living proof that exceptional effort can result in a restructuring of an 11,000 year old journey for one of the most impressive animals on Earth. It is also a lesson as to what the consequences of destroying an animal's sense of self will have on its recovery, resulting in increased cost, time and effort. While the whooping cranes that first landed on the banks of the Platte have been robbed of an unknown number of teachings, their migration to these riverbanks is a legacy restored — that shouldn’t have disappeared in the first place.

Riley Dehr can be reached at rdehr@umich.edu.


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