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Ben Novak: Without the Dodo, No Dodo Tree

By Xavier Maugeret

First Printed in the French L’Express newspaper, Port Louis, Mauritius

Ben Novak, U.S. Embassy, Mauritius

Source: U.S. Embassy Facebook, Port Louis, Mauritius


Technologies and techniques that will help restoring and preserving our ecosystem and perhaps even contribute to the return of our national dodo. These were the themes of an interactive session organized by the Mandela Washington Fellowship and the Embassy of the United States of America in Mauritius last Friday at the Rogers House.

Ben Novak, from Revive and Restore of The Long Now Foundation a non-profit scientific institution, held the presentation. The attendance was composed of members from the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Environment, the National Park Conservation Services, National Reef Conservation Services and some students of the Mauritius University students.

The mission of Revive and Restore: preserve and conserve endemic and endangered species, like the American black footed ferret, but also to try to revive the some extinct breeds such as the passenger pigeon, the woolly mammoth, or even our Dodo using new biotechnologies.

Three main technologies had been put forward during the session. First the use of genetic mapping and Paleogenomics, meaning: studying of living species and recent (from a couple of hundred to thousand years old) fossils genome. This would allow the creation of the animal’s genetic map and help to bring back a species.

According to expert at one point in time, our endemic birds had lost much of their population then rose back in numbers, meaning that in the actual the gene pool is less diverse that it used to be, creating a genetic bottle neck. To establish a complete genetic map, the scientist will have to recover the birds’ DNA from tissues and molecules on older specimens. These specimens being fossilized or preserved birds from either private collections or museums. Creating complete genetic maps will allow helping in the reproduction of endangered and extinct species while avoiding genetic redundancies and degenerative diseases.

For some of our endemic birds, the process will be “simple”, as specimens are still alive. For the dodo, unfortunately it will take more time. While the genetic map of our national bird has already been detailed, more specimens will still be needed take to create sufficient database before reviving it.

The second technology, which is currently in its final laboratory test and is “only” five years old, is the genomic editing. In layman term, it is the edition of a gene to get a certain result.

It differs from the genetically modified organism (GMOs) which is achieved by inserting the chromosome from another species, using a virus or a bacterium, in the targeted specimen. In the case of genomic edition, there is no change in or substitution of the genetic code – the animal is simply a mutant, tweaking a single gene and not changing it. This could be used to resurrect our dodo. It would help transforming a close cousin still alive, the Nicobar pigeon, into a close “breeding” or “foster” parent.

A real life application of the genomic editing is the control and eradication of invasive species, slowing down their proliferation without the use of chemicals or the insertion of non-endemic predatory species that could be dangerous for the environment. Scientists would include a genetic mutation in part of the invasive species to make all their spawn male for example. It would drastically reduce the possibility for reproduction and lead to the end of the population.

The last biotechnology presented was the use of chimeras, a “genetic parent” applicable to birds. Those “genetic parents” would receive relevant DNA so that once they reproduce; their child would be from another breed, specifically the species the scientists would want to revive. That parent could be replaced by a “foster parent” if they do not have the desired traits to raise the child.

It would allow creating chicks that could repopulate the empty ecological niches. If this method is not applicable yet to an extinct bird like the dodo, it would be for our endemic species still alive as Mauritian Parakeet, Pink Pigeon and Kestrel.

If these new biotechnologies offer a glimmer of hope, we still have to wait before seeing the living dodo. Ben Novak stated that these techniques should be used with great precaution during field tests to avoid any problems. These technologies in no way a means stop the efforts in preserving the endangered species. Mauritius could be at the heart of the field-testing while preserving its ecosystem.

In 2013 you were on TEDx. During your presentation, you spoke of your very first scientific project, when you were 14 years old. Interestingly enough, it was on the dodo bird. Yet you had never been to Mauritius before. Why this bird?

Even in the United States the dodo is known. It, unfortunately enough, is the symbol of species going extinct due to human interference. I’m a fossil enthusiast. I have been so since I was young. At first I was interested in dinosaurs. My grandfather was fascinated by birds, a passion I inherited from him. In the end both my passions met. The dodo caught my eye which is, in basic terms, a big pigeon. That science project was nothing more than anything that a 14 years old kid could on the bird. Still I did win awards in North Dakota, my hometown, for it.

Still keeping your TEDx presentation as a starting point, you mentioned an ecosystem dance where the partners are the flora and fauna. Does this dance apply also to Mauritius?

Of course, it applies everywhere. Let’s take the example of the island of Guam, a little over 60 years ago, the brown tree snake was introduced on the island. 10 of the 12 endemic bird species have disappeared since. Because of that the seeds of native trees are no longer scattered, and in 100-150 years when the trees will die, part of the ecosystem will collapse.

It has happened in Mauritius, with tambalacoque (the dodo tree). At one point, there were no more than a handful of these trees, the seeds were unable to grow. When Stanley Temple fed turkeys the fruits of tambalacoque, he had tree shoots. The theory is simple: without the dodo, no tambalacoque.

You have gone through several jobs, from a seasonal one in a museum to lab assistant. Which would you have liked to keep if you were not a scientist?

It is difficult to give a straight answer. I would say that most hold the same place for me in my heart. On the one hand I would like to open a museum one day. For me the museums have a paramount importance. Often they are the first step towards a more open minded education. To succeed in our projects it requires an educated public. On the other hand I wish I had an aviary, raise a lot of birds. I had doves once and it was very rewarding.

It is hard to choose. From a professional point of view, I would like to be the curator of a natural history and art museum while having a large and well-furnished aviary, to keep up with my passion.

You worked on dinosaur soft tissues, are we a little closer to Jurassic Park?

There is always a question about Jurassic Park (laughs), I even worked with Jack Horner (Editor’s note: Palaeontologist who worked on the films). The track proved to be false hope; we are not any closer to living dinosaurs.

Of all the work you have done, what is your best memory or favourite moment?

I love what I do. I was obsessed with genetics, when I was a kid science was just beginning to understand the human genome. And I’m also an avid pigeon lover like the dodo or the passenger pigeon. Being able to do both is great, but the best thing my job gave me was the opportunity to meet the woman who since became my wife.