Using Ancient DNA to Reconstruct Avian Extinctions
Plates depicting the four extinct species by John James Audubon.
Museum specimens of the four species are treasure troves of information.
Principal Investigators Brian Smith (L) and Michael Harvey.
A Skyline plot showing changes in population size over time.
A Passenger Pigeon shoot.
Michael Harvey preparing ancient DNA for sequencing.
A preliminary niche model based on GIS for Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Brian Smith looks at a Carolina Parakeet specimen at the LSU Museum of Natural Science.
About the project

Description of the project and research questions being asked

The Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and Bachman's Warbler all went extinct in North America in the Twentieth Century, but the reasons for their disappearances are still unclear. Three research questions beg answers:

1) Were populations of these species small or healthy before European arrival?

2) Was European arrival followed by major declines that spelled doom for these species?

3) Was habitat destruction or some other cause to blame?

New techniques allow us to extract DNA from old museum specimens of these species. We will then use population genetics to analyze the DNA. Population genetics analyses can tell us the historical population size for each species and whether significant changes in population size occurred over the past few million years. This will allow us to to determine how long ago populations declined. We can also combine locations of known historical records with GIS (Geographic Information Systems) in order to construct models of historical geographical distribution for each species, and to determine whether the extent of suitable habitat is much less today than historically. This information will tell us what the historical status was of these species, whether humans caused dramatic and sudden declines, and whether habitat loss was a potential cause of any declines.


Why this matters and should be exciting to backers

These spectacular bird species are emblematic of a wilder era in North America. The Passenger Pigeon, for example, is thought to have been one of the most abundant bird species on earth before its decline, with flocks of billions blotting out the sun as they moved between feeding areas in the hardwood forests of the eastern United States. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was a denizen of only the oldest primary forests, its presence closely tied to the presence of enormous old trees that are also just a memory today. The Carolina Parakeet, resplendent with bright green, orange, and yellow plumage, was our only native parrot. The Bachman’s Warbler inhabited our southern swamps, and still frequented some of the most pristine bottomlands as recently as the 1960’s. The losses of these species have created irreversible holes in our modern biological communities. Understanding these losses is the key to preventing additional extinctions in the future. 


What your money can do

Modern DNA technologies allow us to obtain genetic data even from old museum specimens of birds and other animals. Any donations will go directly to paying for laboratory chemicals and supplies that we will use to sequence (obtain genetic data from) this DNA. This entire process costs about $200 per individual, and we would need 10 individuals per species to do a population genetics study. Thus, for every $2000 we raise we can study one of the four species, so we are setting the minimum funding required to $2000. If we reach $8000, we will be able to study all four species. We have no other source of funding; this project depends entirely on contributions through


Potential discoveries

We will be able to tell whether the four species historically had large or small populations. Was the Passenger Pigeon really the most abundant bird in the world? We will also learn when each of the four extinct species declined. Did they decline before Europeans arrived, or after? We will also be able to tell what contribution habitat destruction may have played in the extinctions. This will tell us whether habitat destruction was likely responsible for the extinctions. All of this combined will help us learn what caused these extinctions.



Michael Harvey (PhD student) and Brian Smith (postdoctoral researcher) study avian genetics at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science, which houses one of the largest research collections in the United States. Both have published numerous technical papers on birds in peer-reviewed scientific journals, primarily on avian genetics and systematics (relationships and history of species). Michael has been a birdwatcher since childhood, and remembers feeling a sharp twinge of regret each time he came to Passenger Pigeon, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Carolina Parakeet, or Bachman’s Warbler in his old Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, knowing he would never have the opportunity to see these handsome species. Brian’s interest in birds stems from a passion for parrots, and he is particularly excited about studying the poorly known Carolina Parakeet. 


Additional Links

Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science

Michael Harvey's webpage

Brian Smith's webpage



Saturday June 23, 2012
$100+ Backer only update
Saturday June 23, 2012

Hello everyone! 

We are incredibly grateful to you for your interest and support of our research project "Using Ancient DNA to Reconstruct Avian Extinctions". Thank you so much for your passion for science and this work in particular! Brian and I, too, are very excited about getting started on this project! We can't wait to see the first results from the genetic work. Below are some details on our research plan.

Thanks to your support, we raised $2,511 in total, well above our minimum goal of $2,000. We are working to get some additional funds to bring us up to $4,000 for this project, and are confident we can reach that amount in the near future. This will give us enough funding to study two extinct species. We've decided to prioritize Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Carolina Parakeet for two reasons. First, these species are well represented in collections (lots of samples) and we think they could be particularly interesting. And second because research groups at the Smithsonian Institute are already doing some work on the other two species (Passenger Pigeon and Bachman's Warbler) that might overlap with to some extent with our plans. In the longer term, we are hoping to coordinate our research activities with theirs.

Brian has already started working on the niche models (his specialty) to determine the current and past distributions of appropriate habitat for Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Carolina Parakeet. We already have constructed databases of historical records on which to base these models, and are continuing to add records to these. Michael leaves soon to do ornithological field work in Brazil until mid August, but we are planning to start the lab work for the genetic part of the study shortly after his return. Hopefully we will have data sometime next fall, and preliminary results by the winter. We will try to keep you updated as things progress, but feel free to contact us as well if you are interested in how things are going. You can find contact information on our websites, and Michael also posts news items regarding his research on his home page (see links below).

We will shortly send additional emails to those of you receiving awards.

Again, thank you so much! Your support means so much to us and we're looking forward to sharing the secrets of these extinctions with you as they unfold!

Michael Harvey and Brian Smith

Brian's website:

Michael's website:




Sunday June 17, 2012

There are only four days left to support our project on petridish! Thanks to everyone for your support so far.

Wednesday May 23, 2012

In case you needed any more incentive... Today, Dan Lane completed a handsome painting of a Vermivora bachmanii (Bachman's Warbler), one of our study species! He has graciously offered to put this piece toward our project. As described in the rewards, a print of this painting will be offered in return for any donation of more than $100, and the original painting is available in return for a donation of $4000 or more. See an image of the painting here:

Learn more about Dan and his work here:

And thanks for your support!

Monday May 07, 2012

We made it to the minimum required for funding! Thanks everyone for your donations! 

Please continue to support us and spread the word. We currently have enough to study one extinct species (we will likely prioritize either Ivory-billed Woodpecker or Carolina Parakeet). If we can make $4000, we can study an additional species! Brian and I are also looking for alternative sources of funding to supplement what we've raised, but donations are going to supply the bulk of the funding for this project.

Thanks again!


Saturday May 05, 2012


We're getting some press. The project was just featured in the LSU Museum of Natural Science newsletter and on the American Birding Association blog:
We're almost to the minimum required for funding! 
Tuesday April 24, 2012

We've stalled a bit, but we're working hard still to spread the word. Thanks to those that have donated recently!

Friday April 20, 2012

We just broke the halfway mark for our minimum required for funding! Thanks to everyone for the support and keep spreading the word!

Wednesday April 18, 2012

We're up and running and already on our way to reaching our funding goal! Thank you to those that have donated so far.

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This project was successful!
$5 +
I don't need a reward, I just want to support the project.
$50 +
Personalized emails detailing our progress and results as we obtain data.
$100 +
A signed print of an original piece of bird art by artist and field guide author/illustrator Daniel Lane, plus everything above.
$500 +
Acknowledgement in any publications that result from the project (either by name or anonymously), plus everything above.
$4,000 +
A signed original painting by artist and field guide author/illustrator Daniel Lane depicting one of the four extinct bird species, plus everything above.
$8,000 +
A trip (from within the US) to Baton Rouge, LA to tour the world-class research collections of the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science and a day of birding in the diverse Louisiana swamps, forests, and marshes (former habitat for several extinct bird species), plus everything above.
and 8 others