A sailor’s pen-and-ink sketch from 1853 showing a group of now-extinct Western Caribbean penguins (Megadyptes blacktipius) defending their nest from a ship’s terrier. (image courtesy of the Blacktip Island Heritage House)
Biologists at Tiperon University-Blacktip this week announced their plans to revive the extinct Western Caribbean penguin as a way to augment the small island’s marine ecosystem and to possibly pave the way to save critically-endangered species.
“This is the cutting edge in modern genomics, and these penguins are the perfect subject,” TU-B genetics professor Vera Cuda said. “Everyone’s focused on bringing back wooly mammoths and aurochs and other megafauna. Anything that big’s gonna be tough to pull off. But with us starting small with penguins, we have a real shot at being the first team to successfully de-extinct a species.
“Western Caribbean penguins were native to Blacktip, but were hunted out of existence by hungry sailors back in the late 18th Century,” Cuda said. “We have some preserved skins, though, and more than enough penguin DNA to genome-edit multiple birds. We’re working on sequencing the genome now, and hope to have a functional one by year’s end. That’s way ahead of the teams trying to de-extinct dinosaurs and mammoths and thylacines.”
Community officials were supportive of the plan.
“Since the sailing ships full of sailors are history, the re-extinction threat has been eliminated,” Marine Parks spokesperson Val Schrader said. “We’ll set up a captive breeding program to grow the population, and protect it by creating a penguin sanctuary by the marine park.
“We’ve already identified sites on the north end, near Nobbie’s Inne, with good nesting beaches that will make perfect rookeries,” Schrader said. “The hope is the ecosystem will benefit from them preying on the invasive fish species taking over our reefs.”
Others focused on the financial benefits.
“Blacktip’ll have the only wild penguins in the Northern Hemisphere,” island mayor Jack Cobia said. “We’ll be the premiere eco-tourism destination in the Caribbean. Folks’ll come from all over to see them. And to swim and dive with them.”
Others questioned the project’s wisdom.
“Bring extinct animals back to life?” Chip Pompano said. “Has no one here ever seen ‘Jurassic Park?’ Hello! There’s no guarantee they won’t eat all the fish on the reefs. And what if they turn on humans? With that CRISPR technology, one wrong move and you’ve created Frankenstein’s monster. Assuming it works at all—this could just be another funding grift.”
Island geneticists weren’t worried.
“The technology’s foolproof,” Cuda said. “Our big issue is financing. We’re massaging our budget and relocating resources, but we still don’t have what we need. We’re having a bake sale this weekend, and have set up a Go Fund Me account so people can donate. For the island’s common good.”