De-extinction plan may go the way of the dodo

As a historian of the dodo and its island habitat, the Jurassic Park-style plan to “de-extinct” it, long discussed in theory, came as no surprise (Gene editing company hopes to bring dodo ‘back to life’, 31 January). Much as I respect Beth Shapiro’s skill with ancient DNA, first seen with dodos in research seminars here in Oxford in the late 1990s, I am sceptical as to how this will work.

First, the dodo was over twice the size of the next nearest pigeon, the crowned pigeons (Goura species) of New Guinea, and its growing chick thus far too big for the pigeon eggs proposed for its incubation – whereas mammoths and elephants are similar in size, so embryo transfers there might well work.

Second, while it is laudable to propose rewilding the dodo in its native Mauritius, where does the team think is suitable nowadays? The principal causes of the dodo’s extinction – predatory wild pigs and monkeys – still have the run of the remaining native forests. And dodos, largely frugivorous, would need enough forest to follow the fruiting of different tree species through the seasons to survive.

The only prospect would be on the offshore islet where the last confirmed dodos were seen (and eaten) by shipwrecked sailors in 1662, Ile d’Ambre. This 140 hectare island in the fringing lagoon is a government-owned nature reserve, currently being partly restored to natural forest, and we know it is large enough to have supported dodos in the past.

However, for their survival today, it would need a much more proactive restoration. Funding for the de-extinction project would have to include the recreation of an adequate safe habitat into which revived birds could be released – has this been factored in?
Anthony Cheke
Co-author, Lost Land of the Dodo