The Sense of an Endling

Scientists closely monitor the last member of a species. Is there space in a creature’s DNA to consider the prospect of no tomorrow?

Elena Passarello / Animals Strike Curious Poses / Sarabande Books / March 2017 / 12 minutes (3,100 words)

Illustrations from “The Last Menagerie” by Nicole Antebi.

The last Woolly Mammoths died on an island now called Wrangel, which broke from the mainland twelve thousand years ago. They inhabited it for at least eight millennia, slowly inbreeding themselves into extinction. Even as humans developed their civilizations, the mammoths remained, isolated but relatively safe. While the Akkadian king conquered Mesopotamia and the first settlements began at Troy, the final mammoth was still here on Earth, wandering an Arctic island alone.

The last female aurochs died of old age in the Jaktorów Forest in 1627. When the male perished the year before, its horn was hollowed, capped in gold, and used as a hunting bugle by the king of Poland.

The last pair of great auks had hidden themselves on a huge rock in the northern Atlantic. In 1844, a trio of Icelandic bounty hunters found them in a crag, incubating an egg. Two of the hunters strangled the adults to get to the egg, and the third accidentally crushed its shell under his boot.

Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, was pushing thirty when she died. She’d suffered a stroke a few years earlier, and visitors to her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo complained the bird never moved. It must have been strange for the older patrons to see her there on display like some exotic, since fifty years before, there were enough of her kind to eclipse the Ohio sun when they migrated past.

Incas, the final Carolina parakeet, died in the same Cincinnati cage that Martha did, four years after her. Because his long-term mate, Lady Jane, had died the year before, it was said the species fell extinct thanks to Incas’s broken heart.

When Booming Ben, the last heath hen, died on Martha’s Vineyard, they said he’d spent his last days crying out for a female that never came to him. The Vineyard Gazette dedicated an entire issue to his memory: “There is no survivor, there is no future, there is no life to be recreated in this form again. We are looking upon the uttermost finality which can be written, glimpsing the darkness which will not know another ray of light.”

Benjamin, the last thylacine—or Tasmanian tiger—perished in a cold snap in 1936. His handlers at the Beaumaris Zoo had forgotten to let him inside for the night and the striped marsupial froze to death.

The gastric brooding frog—which incubates eggs in its belly and then vomits its offspring into existence—was both discovered and declared extinct within the twelve years that actor Roger Moore played James Bond.

Turgi, the last Polynesian tree snail, died in a London zoo in 1996. According to the Los Angeles Times, “It moved at a rate of less than two feet a year, so it took a while for curators…to be sure it had stopped moving forever.”

The same year, two administrators of a Georgia convalescent center wrote the editor of the journal Nature, soliciting a name for an organism that marks the last of its kind. Among the suggestions were “terminarch,” “ender,” “relict,” “yatim,” and “lastline,” but the new word that stuck was “endling.” Of all the proposed names, it is the most diminutive (like “duckling” or “ fingerling”) and perhaps the most storied (like “End Times”). The little sound of it jingles like a newborn rattle, which makes it doubly sad.

While Nature’s readers were debating vocabulary, a research team in Spain was counting bucardos. A huge mountain ibex, the bucardo was once abundant in the Pyrenees. The eleventh Count of Foix wrote that more of his peasants wore bucardo hides than they did woven cloth; one winter, the count saw five hundred bucardos running down the frozen outcrops near his castle. The bucardo grew shyer over the centuries—which made trophy hunters adore it—and soon disappeared into the treacherous slopes for which it was so well designed.

Though a naturalist declared it hunted from existence at the turn of the twentieth century, a few dozen were spotted deep in the Ordesa Valley in the 1980s. Scientists set cage traps, which caught hundreds of smaller, nonendangered chamois. It was frustrating work, and bucardo numbers dwindled further as the humans searched on. By 1989, they’d trapped only one male and three females. In 1991, the male died and eight years later, the taxon’s endling, Celia, walked right into the researchers’ trap.

She was twelve when they shot her with a blow dart and tied white rags over her eyes to keep her calm. They fit her with a tracking collar and a pulse monitor and biopsied two sections of skin: at the left ear and the flank. Then Celia was released back into the wild to live out the rest of her days. Of the next ten months we know nothing; science cannot report what life was like for Earth’s final bucardo. But the Capra pyrenaica before her had, probably since the late Pleistocene, moved through the seasons in sex-sorted packs. In the female groups, a bucarda of Celia’s age would serve as leader. When they grazed in vulnerable spaces, she’d herd her sisters up the tricky mountain shelves at the first sign of danger, up and up until the group stood on cliffs that were practically vertical. Celia, however, climbed to protect only herself that final winter—and for at least three winters before that, if not for most winters in her rocky life.

BWhite Woolys

It is dangerous to assume that an endling is conscious of its singular status. Wondering if she felt guilty, or felt the universe owed her something—that isn’t just silly; it’s harmful. As is imagining a bucardo standing alone on a vertical cliff, suppressing thoughts of suicide. As is assuming her thoughts turned to whatever the mountain ungulate’s version of prayer might be. Or hoping that, in her life, she felt a fearlessness impossible for those of us that must care for others.

The safe thought is that Celia lived the life she’d been given without any sense of finality. She climbed high up Monte Perdido to graze alone each summer, and hobbled down into the valley by herself before the winters grew too frigid. She ate and groomed and slept, walked deep into the woods, and endured her useless estrus just as she was programmed to do—nothing further.

But then again, a worker ant forever isolated from its colony will walk ceaselessly, refusing to digest food, and a starling will suffer cell death when it has no fellow creature to keep it company. A dying cross spider builds a nest for her offspring even though she’ll never meet them, and a pea aphid will explode itself in the face of a predator, saving its kin. An English-speaking gray parrot once considered his life enough to ask what color he was, and a gorilla used his hands to tell humans the story of how he became an orphan. Not to mention the countless jellyfish that, while floating in the warm seas, have looked to the heavens for guidance.

Though problematic, it’s still easy to call these things representative of what unites our kingdom: we are all hardwired to live for the future. Breeding, dancing, nesting, the night watch—it’s all in service to what comes later. On a cellular level, we seem programmed to work for a future which doesn’t concern us exactly, but that rather involves something that resembles us. We all walk through the woods, our bodies rushing at the atomic level toward the idea that something is next. But is there space in a creature’s DNA to consider the prospect of no next? That one day, nothing that’s us—beyond ourselves—will exist, despite the world that still spins all around us?

Six days into the new millennium, Celia’s collar transmitted the “mortality” beep. A natural death—crushed by a falling tree limb, her neck broken and one horn snapped like a twig. In a photo taken by the humans that fetched her, she seems to have been nestled on her haunches, asleep. They sent Celia to a local taxidermist and then turned to the cells they’d biopsied. After a year spent swimming in liquid nitrogen at 321 degrees below zero, the cells were primed to divide. The Los Angeles Times ran a long article about what might happen next, quoting an environmentalist who warned, “We don’t have the necessary humility in science.”

At the lab, technicians matched a skin cell from Celia with a domestic goat’s egg cell. The goat-egg’s nucleus was removed, and Celia’s nucleus put in its place. Nearly all the DNA of any cell lives inside its nucleus, so this transfer was like putting a perfect Celia curio into the frame of a barnyard goat.

After a mammal’s egg cell is enucleated, it is common for nothing to happen. But sometimes, the reconstructed cell reprograms itself. Thanks to a magic humans don’t totally grasp, the nucleus decides it is now an egg nucleus and then replicates not as skin, but as pluripotent, able to split into skin cells, blood cells, bone cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, cells of the lung.

While this DNA technology evolved, the Celia team cultivated an odd harem of hybrid surrogates—domestic goats mated with the last female bucardos. They had hybrid wombs that the scientists prayed would accept the reconstructed and dividing eggs. In 2003, they placed 154 cloned embryos—Celia in a goat eggshell—into 44 hybrids. Seven of the hybrids were successfully impregnated, and of those seven, just one animal carried a zygote to term. The kid was born July 30, 2003, to a trio of mothers: hybrid womb, goat egg, and magical bucardo nucleus. Genetically speaking, however, the creature was entirely Capra pyrenaica. And so, thirteen hundred days after the tree fell on Celia, her taxon was no longer extinct—for about seven minutes.

The necropsy photos of the bucardo kid are strangely similar to those of Yuka, the juvenile mammoth found frozen in permafrost with wool still clinging to her body. Wet, strangely cute, and lying stretched out on her side, the newborn looks somehow timeless. Her legs seem strong and kinetic, as if she were ready to jump up and run. All of her systems were apparently functional, save her tiny lungs.

In her hybrid mother’s womb, the clone’s lung cells mistakenly built an awful extra lobe, which lodged in her brand-new throat. The kid was born struggling for air and soon died of self-strangulation. Lungs seem the trickiest parts to clone from a mammal; they’re what killed Dolly the sheep as well. How fitting that the most difficult nature to re-create in a lab is the breath of life.

***

The term we now use for the procedure of un-ending an endling has been around for decades, though it was rarely used. “De-extinction” first appeared in a 1979 fantasy novel, after a future-world magician conjures domestic cats back from obscurity. But when the Celia team reported their findings to the journal Theriogenology, they didn’t use the word. A few scientifc papers in fields ranging from cosmology to paleobiology check the name, but it was left almost entirely to science fiction until a dozen years postbucardo. A MacArthur Fellow chided the term’s clunkiness, calling it “painful to write down, much less to say out loud.” But eventually, the buzzword stuck.

“De-extinction” made its popular debut in 2013, in a National Geographic article. To celebrate the coming-out of the term—and the new ways it would allow humans to mark animal lives—the magazine held a conference at their headquarters with lectures organized into four categories: Who, How, Why/Why Not, and Wild Again. Among the How speakers was Ordesa National Wildlife Park’s wildlife director, who recounted the Celia saga. The four-syllable term tangled with the director’s Castilian accent, but people still applauded when he called Celia’s kid “the first ez-tinc-de-tion.” As the audience clapped, the director bowed his head, obviously nervous. Behind him was a projected image of the cloned baby, fresh from her hybrid mother and gagging in the director’s latexed hands. The clone’s tongue lolled out the side of her mouth.

Earlier that morning, an Australian paleontologist confessed his lifelong obsession with thylacines, despite being born nine years after the Tasmanian tiger’s demise. “We killed these things,” he said to the audience. “We shot every one that we saw. We slaughtered them. I think we have a moral obligation to see what we can do about it.” He then explained how he’d detected DNA fragments in the teeth of museum specimens. He vowed to first find the technology to extract the genetic code from the thylacine tooth-scraps, then to rebuild the fragments to make an intact nucleus, and finally to find a viable host womb where a Tasmanian tiger’s egg could incubate—in a Tasmanian devil, perhaps.

The man’s research group, called the Lazarus Project, had just announced their successful cloning of gastric brooding frog cells. The fact that the cells only divided for a few days and then died would not deter his enthusiasm. “Watch this space,” he said. “I think we’re gonna have this frog hopping glad to be alive in the world again.”

Later in the conference, a young researcher from Santa Cruz outlined a plan that allowed humans to “get to witness the passenger pigeon rediscover itself.” But after de-extinction, he said, the birds would still need flying lessons. So why not train homing pigeons to fly passenger routes? To convince the passenger babies they were following their own kind, the young scientist suggested coating the homers with blue and scarlet cosmetic dyes.

That afternoon, the chair of the Megafauna Foundation mentioned how medieval tales and even the thirty-thousand-year-old paintings in Chauvet Cave would help prepare Europe for the herds of aurochs he hoped to resurrect. The head of the conference’s steering committee sounded almost wistful when he concluded at the end of his speech, “Some species that we killed off totally, we could consider bringing back to a world that misses them.” And a Harvard geneticist hinted that mouse DNA could be jiggered to keep the incisors growing from the jawline until they protruded, tusk-like, from the mouth. This DNA patchworking could help fill a gap in our spotty rebuild of the mammoth genome, he said.

Shortly after that talk, a rare naysayer—a conservation biologist from Rutgers—addressed the group: “At this very moment, brave conservationists are risking their lives to protect dwindling groups of existing African elephants from heavily armed poachers, and here we are in this safe auditorium, talking about bringing back the woolly mammoth; think about it.”

BWhite Pigeons

But what exactly is there to think about? What can thinking do for us, really, at a moment like this one? We’re knee-deep in the Holocene die-off, slogging through neologisms that remind us what is left. These speeches—of extravagant plans, of Herculean pipe dreams, and of missing—are more than thought; they admit to a spot on our own genome. Perhaps we’ve always held, with submicroscopic scruples, the fact of this as our next. The first time a forged tool sliced a beast up the back was the core of this lonely cell, and then that cell set to split, and now each scientist—onstage and dreaming—is a solitary cry of this atomic, thoughtless fate.

To dispatch animals, then to miss them. To forget their power and use our own cockeyed brawn to rebuild something unreal from the scraps. Each speech, at this very moment, is a little aria of human understanding, but it’s the kind of knowledge that rests on its haunches in places far beyond thought.

And at that very moment, the last Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog was dodging his keepers at a biosecure lab in Atlanta. Nicknamed Toughie, the endling hadn’t made a noise in over seven years.

And at that very moment, old Nola and Angalifu, two of the six remaining northern white rhinos, stood in the dirt of the Safari Park at the San Diego Zoo with less than twenty-four months to live. Their keepers had already taken Angalifu’s sperm and would do the same for Nola’s eggs, housing the samples in a lab that had already cataloged cells from ten thousand species. It was a growing trend—this new kind of ark, menagerie, or book of beasts—and it carried a new term for itself: the “frozen zoo.”

The planet’s other northern whites, horns shaved down for their own protection, roamed Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy under constant armed watch. And Celia’s famous cells were buzzing in their cryogenic state, far from Monte Perdido, still waiting for whatever might come next.

And at that very moment, way up in northwest Siberia, a forward-thinking Russian was clearing a space to save the world. As the permafrost melted, he said, it would eventually release catastrophic amounts of surface carbon into the atmosphere. To keep the harmful gases in the rock-hard earth, the Russian and his team wanted to turn the tundra back into the mammoth steppe: restoring grassland and reintroducing ancient megafauna that would stomp the dirt, tend the grass, and let the winter snows seep lower to cool the deep land. The reintroduced beasts, he swore, would send the tundra back in time.

He proposed that for every square kilometer of land there be “five bison, eight horses, and fifteen reindeer,” all of which had already been transported to his “Pleistocene Park.” Here was a space where earlier versions of all these beasts had lived in the tens of thousands of years prior. Eventually, once the science caught up, he would bring one elephant-mammoth hybrid per square kilometer, too.

And so here is a picture of next: some model of gargantuan truck following the Kolyma River—rolling over the open land where mammoths once ran for hundreds of miles. Like a growing many of us, the Russian sees the moment in which that truck’s cargo door opens and a creature—not quite Yuka but certainly not elephant—lumbers out into the grass. Her first steps would be less than five hundred miles as the crow flies, out and out over the Arctic, from the island where the last living mammoth fell into the earth 3,600 years ago.

The Russian’s process—making new beasts to tread on the bones of what are not quite their ancestors—has a fresh label for itself, as everything about this world is new. The sound of this just-coined word, when thrown by a human voice into a safe auditorium, carries with it the hope of a do-over, and the thrust of natural danger.

That new word is re-wilding.

***

Excerpted from Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello. Copyright Elena Passarello, published with permission of Sarabande Books, Inc., 2017.