Unlocking secrets of extinct species
COLUMBUS — Exactly one century ago, the world’s last captive Carolina parakeet, Incas, died alone in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo.
The same aviary cage also had served as the final, solitary home for Martha, the last captive passenger pigeon, before her death marked the species’ extinction in 1914.
The two extinct species have found a resting place in Ohio State University’s Museum of Biological Diversity. The museum holds a 50,000-specimen collection, of which birds make up more than half.
“Each specimen is a library book, and these are the library books that we can’t reprint,” said Grant Terrell, a curatorial assistant at the museum, located at 1315 Kinnear Rd. The Northwest Side museum does not offer public displays, instead focusing on research and education.
Far from being a repository for dead creatures, however, the natural history museum illustrates how our ancestors drove species out of existence through farming, hunting and development, Terrell said, and provides material for researchers grappling with a modern biodiversity crisis.
“The thing is extinction is a part of the evolutionary process — but we really accelerate it,” Terrell said. “We don’t even really know how many (species) have been lost.”
An international five-year study released this month found one in eight bird species, from varieties of vultures to finches, owls and doves, is threatened with global extinction.
Compared with other types of organisms, birds are a particularly useful barometer for biological diversity, the study says, because they are easy to observe, active by day, readily identified from a distance and found all over the world.
Of the approximately 430 bird species ever recorded in Ohio, only four — the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Eskimo curlew — are either extinct or have been driven to the brink of extinction.
“Very few have gone extinct — extinct meaning gone for good, wiped off the face of the Earth,” said naturalist Jim McCormac.
Since Ohio’s first settlers arrived in the mid-18th century, a range of human activity led to their disappearance in the state, McCormac said.
Early farmers killed the Carolina parakeet, America’s only native parrot, which they saw as seed-eating pests, he said. Settlers cleared towering, stream-side sycamores, in which the Carolina parakeet nested. Others captured the green-bodied, yellow-headed birds as pets or used their colorful plumage for hat decorations.
The Eskimo curlew once migrated over Ohio on its way from South America to parts of Canada and Alaska. The species most likely went extinct in the late 1960s, when it was last spotted, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Logging drove the debated disappearance of the ivory-billed woodpecker, known as the “Elvis” bird, McCormac said.
Yet the most storied human-caused extinction, he said, is that of the passenger pigeon — at one time the most abundant bird in North America with an estimated world population in the billions.
One 1855 account from Columbus described a flock of passenger pigeons as a “growing cloud” that took two hours to pass over the city, according to Audubon magazine.
“Children screamed and ran for home,” the account said. “Women gathered their long skirts and hurried for the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several dropped on their knees and prayed.”
Passenger pigeons were so terrifyingly abundant that people hunted and killed them indiscriminately — and right out of existence in 1914.
Now Ohio State’s Museum of Biological Diversity houses 17 of them in a metal drawer.
“This was a common bird, but now these collections are all we have,” said Angelika Nelson, the museum’s animal sounds curator.
Today, the museum’s contents, which date as far back as the early 1800s, provide material for powerful cutting-edge science.
“We’re adding things every day,” Terrell said, adding that 1,000 future specimens await preparation in freezers on site. “They’re all we have. You can’t go back to Okeechobee, Florida, in 1873 to see passenger pigeons and ask questions and record stomach contents and molting patterns and rough age.”
Scientists have long depended on natural history museums for modern endeavors.
In the 1960s, scientists analyzed eggshell collections to connect pesticide use to declines in birds of prey such as peregrine falcons.
A century-old bat specimen from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington provided the earliest historical evidence of the fungus responsible for the white-nose syndrome that has decimated U.S. bat populations.
And Canadian researchers have examined the Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker and passenger pigeon as potential contenders for “de-extinction,” in which harvested specimen DNA would be used to resurrect and reintroduce lost species.
“No one imagined that would be possible,” Nelson said. “We don’t know all the value of these specimens. We know they have a ton of potential value.”