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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Book Review: The Ghost with Trembling Wings

"It may be that the best thing that can happen is for the tanager to remain unfound.  What makes the cone-billed tanager special is its mystery; should it ever reappear, it would become just another rare bird in a world already saddled with too any threatened organisms... Or this may be the worst kind of rationalistic bull."

It's a pretty far cry to say that the black-footed ferret and the Loch Ness Monster have much in common.  One is a flesh-and-blood animal, one which it is possible to see in zoos and maybe, if you're super lucky, even in the wild, where it has been reintroduced.  The other is the stuff of legends, a story going back for centuries.  There is a connection, though.  After it was declared extinct for the second or third time, the ferret became little more than a ghost story, not even a rumor of its existence remaining.  If anyone had offered claims of its existence (unsupported by evidence), they would likely have been dismissed as cranks.

It's a tragedy that we are losing species at an ever-increasing rate these days.  Every once in a while, however, that which is lost is returned.  In The Ghost with Trembling Wings, Scott Weidensaul takes the reader on a trip around the world for such Lazaruses of the animal kingdom - animals that were thought to be extinct but end up still being with us.

The "ghosts" in question are species which the author pursues, uncertain if they are or are not extinct.  They often end up being species that the public is less likely to have its collective imagination captured by.  They tend to be birds, small and relatively obscure (obviously - the really big and flashy ones would be harder to overlook) - "dull little warblers", in the words of the author, like the Bachman's warbler and the cone-billed tanager.  Weidensaul does a wonderful job of bringing the birds to life, explaining their histories, and getting the reader excited in their stories, which are often full of drama, mystery, controversy, and sometimes a hint of scandal (that Colonel Meinertzhagen... what a hoot).  To this day, the re-emergence of the ivory-billed woodpecker, for instance, is hotly contested.

Weidensaul does wade away from birds in other chapters, tackling, among other topics, one of the most famous "is-it-or-isn't-it" extinct species, the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger ("I wish I;d never heard of the wretched animals," groused one expert who has to spend far too much of his time dealing with pranksters and obsessive would-be nature sleuths).  He also takes us across the British countryside in search of leopards and pumas (not making this up).  He explores the historic attempts to "breed back" the extinct ancestors of domestic animals - the aurochs and the tarpan.  And then, perhaps more for shock-value than anything else, he exposes the incredulous reader to the broader world of cryptozoology and its myriad enthusiasts, questing for their Bigfoots and Nessies and what have you.

The book is subtitled "Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species", and Weidensaul certainly does seem to encounter a lot of wishful thinking.  For some of the species which he pursues, there is reasonable hope that individuals still remain in the wild.  For others, there is only fantasy and rumor.  Some of the species will perhaps be rediscovered some day, others (most, perhaps) are truly extinct.  Present or not, extinct or extant, they each contribute a little bit of mystery and wonder to the natural world, and make its exploration that much more exciting.

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