Douglas Campbell: We could re-create an extinct species, but should we?

How tragic would it be if we could only experience piwakawaka (fantails) as stuffed specimens in museums? Photo / Warren Buckland
How tragic would it be if we could only experience piwakawaka (fantails) as stuffed specimens in museums? Photo / Warren Buckland

"A pair of Huia, without uttering a sound, appeared in a tree overhead, and as they were caressing each other with their beautiful bills, a charge of No. 6 brought them both to the ground together. The incident was rather touching and I felt almost glad that the shot was not mine."

So wrote Sir Walter Buller, the great Victorian collector and ornithologist, in his book, A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Despite this sentiment, Sir Walter was a major wheeler-dealer in a rapacious collecting industry.

Literally thousands of huia were shot in the late 1800s, quite a few by Sir Walter himself, and sold to museums and collectors to make mounted specimens. Each huia was worth £5, equivalent to about $1000 today.

The species' final death knell came when, as a gesture of respect, a Maori guide placed a huia tail feather in the hatband of the Duke of York, soon to become King George V, when he visited New Zealand.

Huia feathers suddenly became a must-have fashion accessory.

The last officially recorded sighting of a live huia was in 1907. Today, if you want to see huia you can do so in Te Papa, where a taxidermied male and female stare out from a glass case.

How tragic would it be if we could only experience tui, kereru (wood pigeons) or piwakawaka (fantails) as stuffed specimens in museums?

The extinction of the huia was a tragedy of huge proportions. Huia were the ultimate avian "stars" of the New Zealand bush: beloved by Maori, extraordinarily charismatic, beautiful, confiding and fearless.

They were, as the world's most sexually dimorphic birds (with large differences in appearance between males and females of the species), truly unique.

And so, due to a fickle fashion for feathers and the greed and foolishness of our forebears, a wonderful national treasure has been lost forever.

Or has it?

The irony is that the collectors who shot huia by the thousands might have unwittingly laid the groundwork for the huia's possible resurrection. The skins, beaks and feathers they collected, now stored in museums around the world, contain huia DNA.

Admittedly the DNA is mostly in terrible shape, degraded by time and often by formalin.

But still, with enough care the huia's genome can probably be sequenced. If we can read the huia's genetic information, then could we use it to recreate living huia? Incredibly, the answer is probably yes.

One possible method is this: First, some cells would be extracted from kokako, the huia's closest relative. (The kokako needn't be harmed.) Next, synthesised huia genes would be pasted into the kokako cells, in place of kokako genes. The modified kokako cells would then be transformed into "primordial germ cells", and injected into a fetal chicken.

When the chicken matured it would be mated with another chicken produced in the same way. Finally, when the resulting eggs hatched, the hatchlings would be neither chickens nor kokako, but huia.

Admittedly, the process is likely to prove more complicated in practice, but the necessary technologies are rapidly developing, and there is every reason to suspect that the de-extinction of the huia, and other long-lost New Zealand bird species, will be feasible within our grandchildren's lives, if not sooner.

But if we can resurrect the huia, should we?

There are two reasons to hold back in the short term.

The first is that the technology will quickly become less expensive and more powerful over coming years. The second is that right now many New Zealand species, especially freshwater species such as the longfin eel, are under severe threat from greedy, shortsighted commercial interests not dissimilar from those that wiped out the huia.

Huia can wait, since they are extinct already. Their stuffed corpses aren't going anywhere.

The longfin eel, however, can't wait. It needs urgent protection. Stopping a species going extinct will always be infinitely easier than resurrecting it.

In the short term, de-extinction is a distraction from other, more pressing conservation issues. But long term, it holds great promise.

Let's hope our grandkids inherit a predator-free New Zealand where they can see not just tui and kereru soaring though the skies, and longfin eels cruising lazily in the streams, but also, to quote Sir Walter: "Huia caressing each other with their beautiful bills."

Wouldn't that be a wonderful, metaphorical, feather in New Zealand's cap?

Dr Douglas Campbell is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Canterbury.

- NZ Herald

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