The Heath Hen
Could Come Back
Community Town Hall Event, Martha’s Vineyard, July 24, 2014
By Stewart Brand
Speakers: Stewart Brand, Tom Chase, Josh Donlan, Tom Dunlop, Matt Pelikan, Ryan Phelan
Heath Hens were wild chickens once abundant throughout New England, but they were so tasty and easy to shoot that they were hunted to extinction on the mainland by 1870. One last flock survived on Martha’s Vineyard for 60 years because Islanders invented the form of conservation known as habitat preservation. What is now the State Forest was originally set aside and protected as Heath Hen habitat, and the birds were defended against hunters and predators.
In the 1920s the Island became famous for its beloved but dwindling flock, and when the last one, known as “Booming Ben,” died in 1932, the sense of tragedy was widespread. In the Vineyard Gazette Henry Beetle Hough wrote an editorial that became the definitive statement about extinction:
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. We are in touch with the reality of extinction.
That last chapter in the Heath Hen saga helped set in motion the conservation movement of the 20th century.
Renewed Hope for the Heath Hen
But what if it is not the last chapter, and Martha’s Vineyard can take up the story where it left off and demonstrate a revolutionary new set of goals and tools for conservation?
Thanks to recent and still-emerging breakthroughs in genetic technology, we told the Islanders, it is becoming possible the bring the extinct Heath Hen back to life. Its genome can be completely reassembled from DNA still in the 100+ museum specimens. The unique genes of the subspecies can be edited into the genome of its closest living relative, the Prairie Chicken, effectively resurrecting the Heath Hen via a sort of one-directional hybridization.
It is possible, for technical reasons, that the Heath Hen could be the first animal brought back from extinction. (The Heath Hen and Prairie Chicken are so closely related that genome comparison, gene transfer, and surrogate parenting could be relatively simple; also the genome of the domestic chicken has been thoroughly studied, which will make all the genome analysis quicker and more certain.)
On July 24, 2014 Revive & Restore organized an evening panel event at the Ag Hall, titled “The Heath Hen Could Come Back.” Panelists included Islanders Tom Chase, Matt Pelikan, and Tom Dunlop, along with island conservationist Josh Donlan and the co-founders of Revive & Restore, Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan. The audience of 175 was enthusiastic, and a report in the Vineyard Gazette, “Heath Debate Contains Vineyard DNA,” gave a thorough account of the evening.