…our goal as scientists working in this field is not to create monsters or to induce ecological catastrophe but to restore interactions between species and preserve biodiversity.
— from How to Clone a Mammoth – The Science of De-Extinction by Beth Shapiro (b. 1976), ecologist evolutionary biologist
While reading the book How to Clone a Mammoth – The Science of De-Extinction my mind was sent soaring by what I see as the unlimited possibilities of dabbling with the genomes of the animal kingdom.
The author of How to Clone a Mammoth is Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Shapiro is a recipient of a MacArthur Award, commonly known as the genius award, an honor bestowed upon “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future” (www.macfound.org).
She is not only a genius in the field of genome research, she is also a good writer. I recommend the book. It offers a wealth of factual information about finding, recovering, and reconstructing an extinct animal’s genomes – the complete set of genes and chromosomes that comprises the genetic material in the cell of a living organism.
Although the concept of “cloning” a mammoth is intriguing, the book makes me wonder: rather than invest a lot of money and effort into laboratory projects aimed at bringing extinct species back to life, resurrecting animals that did not survive the changing environments of this ever-evolving world, would it not be more practical to create some hybrid species that never actually existed but could be genetically engineered to thrive in the North American environment of the 21st century?
Following up on this line of reasoning, I sent a message to the only genius that I know personally, Michael Rainone, head of PCDworks (www.pcdworks.com), a firm that specializes in solving technological and industrial problems with cutting-edge concepts, innovation, and products. This is the man who developed a strain of micro-organisms that “eat” the impurities in waste water, a system that takes in sewage at one end and discharges pure, potable water at the outflow. In short, someone who knows his stuff when it comes to engineering a genome to do miraculous things.
My proposed genomic project, based on what I understand of Professor Shapiro’s research, is much simpler: development of a “natural enemy species” to control an ever-increasing threat to agriculture. Similar to the use of ladybugs as predators to control the aphids that damage the squash, cucumbers, melons, beans, potatoes, and other plants in my garden, I envision the judicious introduction of a predator to control populations of feral hogs, which are devastating farm and ranch lands across the country.
I print here, in full, my letter to my friend Mike, outlining the project. I will post his reply as soon as I receive it.
Feb. 6, 2016
Michael D. Rainone, CEO
I hesitate to offer this entrepreneurial brainstorm of an idea to you, since my previous two, brilliant as they seemed to me, were rejected in what I considered a cavalier and casual manner, but this one is so important, so vital, to Texas agriculture that I feel it is my civic duty to share it. As always, I surrender all intellectual property rights to your company.
Feral hogs are vastly destructive in Texas, which has more feral hogs than all other states combined. (I do not remember where I read that factoid, but it seemed to be a valid bit of information.) Farmers and ranchers would be ecstatic if you came up with a solution to this problem.
Texas is sadly lacking in apex predators. Montana and Wyoming can control elk populations by introducing a few packs of gray wolves, Alaska keeps caribou from overrunning the state with strategically placed brown bears and grizzly bears, and Florida keeps down the alligator count by releasing (unintentionally) Burmese pythons.
But Texas? The state has made no attempt to reduce wild hog populations via stockings of predators that are natural enemies of hogs. I attribute this negligence, in part, to the lack of a suitable predator.
My initial plan was release of a “human predator”: granting unlimited hog shooting privileges to the state’s 2nd amendment “enthusiasts” so they could shoot at, and occasionally hit and kill, any feral hog at any time in any location with no restrictions and no penalties for unfortunate collateral damage — dead livestock or pets or snowbird tourists or what have you. I soon realized this plan would be counterproductive because once feral hogs are subjected to hunting pressure they become completely nocturnal, and the nightlong bursts of gunfire and glare of spotlights would disturb the sleep of working families, thereby diminishing their productivity and causing a general collapse of the state’s economy.
What’s needed is a new premier predator, a nocturnal carnivore that can adapt to a wide range of environments, locate, hunt, kill and consume a huge number of hogs, live in harmony with human populations, and have a physical appearance that is either so cuddly and cute or so horrendously ugly and frightening that the animals would be a tourist attraction.
Here’s what I’m thinking…
With a bit of genome manipulation (put your genius to work here; if you can cultivate micro-organisms to clean waste water, you can easily design a macro-organism that eats pigs) you can create a creature that has selected attributes of the puma, little brown bat, grizzly bear, orca, wolf, baboon, and wolverine. I’m sticking strictly to mammal species to make this gene-splicing project easier.
The result – eureka! – will be a sort of giant, carnivorous, flying monkey that is a ravenous enemy of the hog. For a working title, its scientific name could be lucigulorcus pappumursae, but in the vernacular we would call it valador gatursa (flying bearcat), shortened to Valorcat for obvious public relations purposes.
It will be the consummate hog killer, able to fly, burrow, and swim after its prey, see in the dark, and even have some limited locomotion on the ground. It will be a social animal that hunts cooperatively in packs (or more accurate in flocks), kills prey ruthlessly for the sheer enjoyment of the hunt, reproduces prodigiously, is large and vicious enough to handle hogs up to 400 pounds, and buries its own poop.
With the right gene tinkering it could adapt to any environment, roosting in trees in forested parts of the state, clustering in natural and man-made caves (such as highway culverts) in prairie areas, and nesting in unused oil derricks in the Permian Basin. In the Valley, the state DNR may have to build Valorcat shelters that resemble RV parks.
A potential “Jurassic Park” danger to life and limb, you argue? Ah, but here’s the crucial characteristic: the Valorcat can eat only pork! That is to say, hog meat is the sole food stuff that its digestive system can process. So it would be a narrow spectrum predator that would be the natural enemy of only one species, the hog.
Is this brilliant, or what?
Of course there is some risk that domestic hogs could be killed by the Valorcat, but I for one, a resident of Iowa, a state literally covered in the putrid manure of domestic hogs, would be willing to take that risk. In fact, I would probably keep a kennel of three or four Valorcats on my own place to discourage development of hog confinement facilities anywhere nearby.
Send me your initial thoughts on this plan. I not only grant you the exclusive IP, I will even do the initial public relations and communications work gratis when the time comes to release the first specimens into the wild.
p.s. – Do not use the term “Pack” when referring to a family group of Valorcats, due to potential negative connotations. We will call them a “Flutter” of Valorcats.
More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.