Life After Death

The Rediscovery of "Extinct" Plants and Animals

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) , 877 of our animals and 569 of our plants are officially endangered. Another 297 species are “threatened,” meaning that they stand a decent chance of becoming endangered in the not-so-distant future. But even more telling are the statistics not included in those USFWS figures: the tally of species that are gone, presumably, forever.

Brad Markel 1997

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) pegs the current worldwide rate of extinction at about 27,000 species per year, or three species lost every hour. Many of those plants and animals were never catalogued in any way. According to USFWS Consultations and Habitat Conservation Chief Rick Sayers, once a species is branded extinct, it essentially drops off the agency’s radar screen. It also falls off the endangered species list—if it ever made it there in the first place. “To be honest with you,” says Sayers, “if we’re really convinced that a species is extinct, we don’t make a particularly strong effort to continue looking for it.”

But extinct isn’t necessarily forever. As Bruce Stein, a senior scientist at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) , explains, “A lot of times, you simply don’t know if something hasn’t been seen for a long time because it’s really gone, or because no one has bothered to look for it. You can never be absolutely certain about extinctions for most things. It’s a problem of negative verification.”

Negative, that is, until something positive has been unearthed. “Re-found species,” as they’re known, are indeed rare, but scientists continue to bring supposedly extinct plants and animals back from the dead. Stein, as the leader of TNC’s recently de-funded Canon Exploration Grants Program, the first systematic effort to look for missing and possibly extinct U.S. species, coordinated a two-year search that resulted in the rediscoveries of several plants, six snails, two insects, and a freshwater mussel, among others. The Uinta Mountain snail, a Utah species that hadn’t been seen for nearly 60 years, was found in 1998 after an Indiana Jones-style expedition revealed typos in the original discoverer’s field report. After recalculating the missing snail’s dimensions, and moving the search to an entirely different mountain range, the modern-day researchers found what they were looking for. Similarly, a whole new population of tiny snail darter fish was recently located in a tributary of the Tennessee River.

Another scientist, Dr. Stuart Pimm of the University of Tennessee, spent two rain-soaked years in Hawaii scouring the side of Maui’s 10,000-plus-foot Haleakala Crater in search of the elusive po’ouli honeycreeper, first discovered in 1973, later assumed to have gone extinct, and now believed by some experts to be the world’s rarest bird. By the time Pimm and his colleagues packed their bags for the mainland, they had re-found three remaining individuals. It was a significant—if slight—find, but one disconcerting problem pestered the scientists as they made their way back to the lab: “I think it’s now known that two of the birds are of one sex, and one is of the other, but for a while there was a distinct possibility that they were all of the same sex,” recalls Pimm. “You don’t have to be a biologist to work out the consequences of that.”

Nor do you have to be a statistician to realize how thin a line these rediscovered species are walking on. “Quite often,” explains Pimm, “when you rediscover a species, it’s really too late. It’s a lot like seeing somebody die in a car accident, then going over to the vehicle and suddenly realizing that they’re breathing and there’s nothing you can do to save them.”

Yet in the same way an EMT would never turn her back on a crash victim, these scientists refuse to give up hope for the survival of each newly rediscovered species. “As someone really dedicated to biodiversity conservation, I have to believe in the long term,” says Dr. Mary Pearl, the executive director of Philadelphia-based Wildlife Preservation Trust International. In recent years, Pearl’s organization put together a successful search that revealed a wild population of black lion tamarins in the slashed-and-burned rainforests of eastern Brazil. Currently, they’re on the verge of locating what they hope is a flock of thick-billed parrots in southern Arizona, and they’re closing in on what they believe to be the world’s only population of ivory-billed woodpeckers, a species thought to have met its fate in the 1950s. “I subscribe to the view that you can’t decide where or where not to intervene by constantly thinking of what the ultimate chances for success are,” says Pearl. “There’s definitely a lot of hope involved. But every once in a while you’re surprised by good luck.”

And sometimes scientists make their own luck. That’s the case in New Zealand, where researchers have approved a plan to clone an extinct indigenous bird, the Huia, from preserved specimens in museums and biological labs. The Huia, prized by the native Maori for their large white-edged tail feathers, were decimated by the European millinery trade and declared extinct in the 1920s. The project’s Dr. Rhys Michael Cullen says that attempts to clone the bird will begin with a search for cells in bone and tendon tissue, and if none are found it will proceed with DNA extraction using what the Environmental News Network calls “Jurassic Park technology.” Obviously, experimentation of this kind raises many moral, as well as technical, questions. “Saving animals without also saving their habitat is a futile effort,” says John Kostyack, NWF counsel.

If long-gone birds and animals can be successfully cloned, extinction might lose its finality. As it is, the current round of rediscoveries illustrates just how little we know about the true state of the world’s plants and animals. Are they truly going extinct, or are they merely “missing?” Stein, who shares the commonly held scientific view that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis, says every potential lead deserves attention. “Our understanding of biodiversity, even that in our own country, is pretty meager,” says Stein. “And you can’t really protect something until you know what it is, where it is, and what it needs.” For that reason, you can bet that a handful of conservationists and scientists will continue to ply the Earth’s wildest places for the species that the rest of the world has given up for dead.