December 7, 2023

Handbook for the Recently Extinct (Part 1)

This week, dear adventurer, picture yourself not in a dungeon, not in a camp in the woods, or a countryside tavern, but in a genetics lab. This laboratory is not in some far flung version of the future but somewhere within reach, not centuries but decades or maybe just years ahead of this moment. Imagine white floors and ceilings with glass and metal furnishings that scream “we do science here,” rooms full of freezers, incubators where oversized eggs are artificially warmed, tanks where embryos grow from fetus to something larger, more fierce. Lab technicians in crisp white coveralls move from room to room, faces hidden behind surgical masks and safety glasses, sample trays in their gloved hands. 

But then, you see the lab techs not walking but running frantically through the halls, scrambling toward wherever the nearest exit may be. You hear a sound that is alien but somehow familiar, and you know something is coming closer. 

Dear traveller, it’s time to talk about de-extinction. 

Extinct creatures have a history of showing up in games, from dinosaurs and woolly mammoths in various editions of the monster manual to Jurassic Park RPGs. But dinosaurs tend to be the most represented of the pantheon of the extinct. Yes, dinosaurs are cool as hell and the closest we can get to real dragons, so it makes sense they show up all the time. But there are tons of creatures that died out not millions of years ago but in the course of human history, creatures we have found mummified or kept preserved in museums, with intact DNA and fully sequenced genomes. These are the animals that could walk the earth again long before we have to deal with a real-life Jurassic Park, and that are current candidates for de-extinction. As in, right now, as you read this, someone somewhere is working on bringing these animals back to life. 

The Elephant Bird

One of the largest birds known walked the Earth recently enough that Marco Polo described it in his travels. The Elephant Bird lived on Madagascar, where it faced few natural predators and was able to grow to massive sizes, between ten and twelve feet tall. It was a flightless bird, similar to modern ostriches and cassowaries, most closely related to modern day kiwi birds. Their eggs were larger even than dinosaur eggs, about six times the size of ostrich eggs and 150 times the size of chicken eggs, so these birds were born big. Elephant bird eggs are numerous, and the source of DNA that could be used to bring these birds back. 

The elephant bird likely ate fruit, but its vegetarianism doesn’t make it a pushover. Like modern giant, flightless birds, the elephant bird had powerful hind legs and fearsome talons. Ostriches are able to maim or kill big cats and humans with their feet, and their long legs give them between ten and sixteen feet of reach. Given that elephant birds had at least a foot on the tallest ostriches, they could do even more damage over greater distance, slashing with raptor-esque feet when it felt cornered or needed to defend its nest. 
H.G. Wells’ short story Aepyornis Island describes a collector stranded on an island with a centuries old elephant bird egg that hatches. For the first two years, the bird is basically the narrator’s pet and sole companion, but when it hits maturity it turns on him, viciously attacking and forcing its former human friend into a tree to keep from being maimed. Though this isn’t a historical account, it’s a good starting point for what to do if you find yourself at the wrong end of an elephant bird’s temper: get out of the bird’s reach. Hopefully your climbing skills are solid.