Back from the dead

Reviving extinct species may soon be possible

Banking cells from endangered species can help in other ways, too

LATE ONE day in April 2002, a delicate blue-beige bird with a white collar and black eye mask was released into the dense forest on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The bird, a female, was one of just three remaining po’ouli (pronounced poh-oh-oolee), a species of honeycreeper that had been discovered in 1973. Believing there to be one male among the three, researchers were desperate to arrange a match. The birds, however, did not appear in the least bit concerned about the fate of their species. To help things along, earlier that day a team had caught the female, fitted her with a small radio transmitter and set her free where the male had last been seen. The next morning they set off with aerials to track the female’s progress. They soon found her, resolutely making her way back across the island to her own territory.

Conservation is full of such failed romances. When a species is reduced to a few individuals, researchers will go to great lengths to set up arranged marriages. If wild matings cannot be facilitated, they may try to breed animals in captivity and then release them back into the wild. Thus, the California condor was brought back from 22 individuals; the Arabian oryx from just nine. With the po’ouli, the decision was made to bring the reluctant trio in for captive breeding. The male was caught in September 2004. He was old, had only one eye and died a few weeks later. The other two birds were spotted around the same time, then never seen again.

And that, you might think, was the end of the po’ouli’s tragic tale. But reproductive and genetic technologies developed in the past decade mean other outcomes are now…