Restoring the Heath Hen – a species of Prairie chicken that went extinct in 1932 – to the sand plains of the Northeast United States has the potential to revitalize the conservation of this unique habitat. The innovative science required to bring back the Heath Hen could be transferrable way beyond the regional conservation benefits, opening the door to genetic rescue for all wild bird species.
About This Project
For residents of Martha’s Vineyard (an island located south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts), the Heath Hen is the subject of much local lore, which includes a large stone monument to “Booming Ben,” the last Heath Hen on the island who was named for the his vocal mating ritual, as he spent his final years calling to females no longer there to hear.
The Heath Hen became one of our de-extinction projects after Susan Banta, a Martha’s Vineyard summer resident, heard co-founders Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan give a talk about Revive & Restore. She asked: “What about bringing back the Heath Hen?”
In the summer of 2014, Susan Banta introduced Revive & Restore to members of the Martha’s Vineyard community, and a town hall meeting was scheduled to discuss bringing back the extinct Heath Hen. A cadre of founding supporters formed and they provided the enthusiasm and the funding to explore the first steps of the Heath Hen revival: determining whether the bird was a genetically distinct from its living relatives, the Prairie Chickens.
Why the Heath Hen?
Conservationists have worked for decades to restore and maintain globally-rare sandplain grasslands and heathlands on the Massachusetts Islands. These habitats need disturbance in the form of fire, grazing, or ocean salt spray to maintain their structure and the dozens of rare species that live there. Sandplain grasslands are home to many diverse and rare species.
De-extinction of the Heath Hen will not only galvanize public interest in the conservation of the sandplain grasslands, but the revived Heath Hen would also fill a needed ecological role in this unique ecosystem.
Historically, the Heath Hen was an indicator species for these habitats. An indicator species is a sensitive species that is so intricately connected to and dependent on the diverse components of its ecosystem that it serves as a “thermometer” of an ecosystem’s health. In short, if an indicator species is thriving in an environment, it means that all of the right habitat components are in place. It means the habitat is healthy and likely supporting a wide range of species that also require the same components. The healthy presence of the indicator species also signals that it is interacting with other species (e.g. predator prey interactions, mutualistic relationships, etc.) – which can inform conservationists that a habitat is supporting rare species seldom observed. Heath Hens booming across New England will be a resounding song of conservation success for the endemic communities of the sandplain grasslands.
Could another species fill the same niche?
The primary reason Heath Hen de-extinction is more preferable than other forms of ecological replacement comes down to one key trait: reproductive viability. It’s closest relative, the Greater Prairie Chicken, could never successfully colonize New England habitats, particularly on the small Massachusetts islands. Greater Prairie Chickens require large, diverse populations with expansive grassland habitats and lekking grounds in order to thrive; they cannot live in small isolated pockets of habitat at low numbers. This is a major problem for the management of Midwestern populations of Greater Prairie Chickens, which are in constant need of supplemental birds from larger flocks in Kansas and Nebraska; without periodic augmentation, these isolated populations spiral rapidly into extinction.
The same extinction spiral would ensue for any New England prairie chicken flock separated from other grassland habitats by expansive forests. However, the Heath Hen thrived over the scattered grasslands of New England for tens of thousands of years. How did they do it when their living relatives struggle under the same conditions? The Heath Hen must have possessed genetic differences in behavior, dispersal, and perhaps habitat exploitation that allowed them to be a common dominant game bird of the historic New England landscape. The Heath Hen may also have possessed differences in fertility genes or fewer deleterious genes capable of being exacerbated by inbreeding. Discovering the genetic foundations of the Heath Hens adaptation to its habitat is the beginning step towards de-extinction.
Phases of Heath Hen De-Extinction
The phases of Heath Hen de-extinction encompasses five stages: in silico, in vitro, in vivo, ex situ, and in situ. These five stages can be grouped into three overarching phases given their overlapping and interdependent technologies and resources: genome research, revival, and restoration. This basic structure will be the same for all avian genetic rescue efforts, although the unique traits of every species will demand different innovative techniques at various stages in the process. Some aspects unique to the Heath Hen are:
We know the Heath Hen is extremely closely related to living members of its genus, the North American prairie chicken. Unlike some other extinct birds, the Heath Hen has few visible differences to its living relatives. Also, historic records do not detail the Heath Hen’s life history enough to distinguish unique behaviors from its living relatives. In sum, there are no obvious traits to suggest what genetic pathways might be important for de-extinction. Clearly, the Heath Hen must have had different breeding dispersal patterns and behaviors from its prairie relatives in order to have thrived in its former New England sandplain grassland habitats, but the species’ unique adaptations are entirely unknown.
Because the Heath Hen is closely related to the domestic chicken, it may be possible to use the chicken as germ-line surrogates to breed and hatch clutches of revived Heath Hens. If possible, there is a great advantage using domestic chickens as reproductive surrogates. Domestic chickens can live in smaller spaces comfortably and can be fertilized easily via artificial insemination. They are also capable of breeding continuously, laying over 300 fertile eggs per year. Prairie Chickens can only naturally produce 30 fertile eggs at most in a breeding season and need specialized lekking pens to breed. Successful interspecies germ-line transmission experiments could revolutionize and speed up the recovery of other rare chicken-like birds worldwide.
The last surviving Heath Hens survived in a refuge on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Islands offer ideal reintroduction sites for research purposes; the natural barrier of ocean water provides a closed environment to contain early reintroduction studies. Martha’s Vineyard is home to the original Heath Hen reserve. The island could be home to booming Heath Hens again someday, but other nearby Massachusetts islands may be better early candidates to lead the restoration of the Heath Hen. Ultimately, once the species proves its viability on the Massachusetts islands, we can consider restoration to the New England mainland.
Heath Hen Founding Funders
Revive & Restore would like to thank the following funders:
- Warren Adams
- G. Kenneth Baum and Ann Baum Foundation
- Lauren and John Driscoll
- Betsy and Jesse Fink
- Julie and Robin Graham
- Pamela Kohlberg and Curt Greer
- Gwen and Peter Norton
- Brad Palmer