Researchers wanted to see why the passenger pigeon has gone extinct since there were once billions of these birds. To do so, scientists analyzed DNA samples from the toes of the birds which were preserved in museums for more than hundreds of years.
The Passenger Pigeon Seems to Have Been Hunted to Extinction
A paper with the study results was released in the journal Science, and the analysis was conducted by scientists from the University of California, Santa Cruz. One of the researchers, Beth Shapiro, mentioned that they find it odd that a bird that had a giant population went extinct in just a few decades. The population of passenger pigeons filled the sky over North America more than a century ago. In 1914, there were none of them left.
In the 19th century, their number started to drop because their congregation made them easier to hunt. In 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo, there was only one passenger pigeon left. Its name was Martha, and she died that same year. Her body was transported to Washington where she was stuffed and put in a museum.
Now, the only passenger pigeons we can see are in museums. The researchers persuaded the museum curators to let them take samples of the bird’s tissues. Just from a piece of skin from the bottom of a toe, the researchers were able to sequence the entire genome of these birds.
The team then compared the DNA of the passenger pigeon with the one of the band-tailed pigeon, which is their closest living relative. Despite the fact that these two types of pigeons are very similar, the band-tailed one doesn’t live in large groups as the passenger pigeon did.
Scientists observed that this bird’s extinction was entirely the fault of hunters. Before the 19th century, when people started hunting them, they had big and stable population numbers. The passenger pigeon didn’t have biological problems, and it might have survived if people stopped hunting them. Because they were largely hunted, their population wasn’t able to recover, and the species went extinct in just a few centuries.
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