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Eternal Hopes

Carl Safina

The Ghost With Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species. Scott Weidensaul. x + 341 pp. North Point Press, 2002. $26.

Everyone knows that extinct means gone—finished, done for, history, no more. But it turns out that this clear, crisp conceptualization works best in the human mind, and the human mind also has other ways of looking at things, including denial, fantasy and irrepressible hope.

This pair of thylacines . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Working along the border of eternal night is much messier than one might think. Consider this scenario: A formerly widespread species becomes apparently extinct, but reports of sightings (none accompanied by a good photo or specimen for confirmation) trickle in for years from observers with varying degrees of credibility; flickering excitements and bitter debates ensue. Or this one: A very common species vanishes for a quarter century or more and is sensibly presumed extinct, only to reappear with intensity and reassert its grasp on life.

It is hard to know for sure when—or whether—the death knell for a species has tolled. How does one confirm, or even discover, the millisecond inaugurating that eternity? It's difficult to prove a negative: To search for a living specimen of a plant or animal and fail to find it doesn't translate into certainty that none are left.

In The Ghost With Trembling Wings, naturalist Scott Weidensaul explores the challenges of working in the dim twilight where the existence of a species is shadowy, and hope is the only thing one can be certain of.

Extinction is a multidimensional process, with major biological, social, economic, scientific and political components, as Weidensaul demonstrates in a detailed account of the demise of the thylacine (often called the Tasmanian tiger). After prolonged persecution by ranchers and bounty hunters, the last documented thylacine died in a zoo in 1936, less than two months after the government belatedly extended legal protection for the species.

A black-footed ferret as depicted by John Woodhouse Audubon . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Although many life forms went extinct before hominids ever appeared, we humans take a heavy toll, arriving as we do with our weapons, fires, diseases, livestock, rats, saws, poisons, bounties, traps, appetites, biases and good intentions. Weidensaul makes this point repeatedly, with stories such as these: Mongooses are brought to St. Lucia to control introduced rats but instead wreak havoc on native island birds; North American scientists come to Costa Rica to study golden toads, which are soon killed off by a North American fungus perhaps brought there unwittingly by the researchers; and canine distemper, possibly carried into the wild by volunteers dusting prairie dog burrows for fleas, becomes a factor in the near-extinction of black-footed ferrets, who eat prairie dogs. (The ferrets fortunately are saved by a last-ditch captive breeding program and reintroduced to the wild.)

Weidensaul doesn't limit his discussion to the stars of extinction, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker and the thylacine, but touches on more obscure rarities as well, such as the Jamaican iguana, the Congo bay owl, the giant woolly flying squirrel and Semper's warbler (which is the "ghost" alluded to in the title). This laudable inclusiveness has an Achilles' heel, though: As the label obscure suggests, often so little is known about such species that not much of a story can be told.

The main connecting theme of the book is people who search for species that may or may not exist. Their motivations range from hope for a less diminished world, to curiosity, to guilt over human-caused extinction, to fascination with the occult. They are shown here looking for the last individuals of a species, rediscovering creatures long believed extinct, chasing their own delusions, attempting to create facsimiles of the wild progenitors of cattle and horses, and studying the feasibility of cloning extinct animals such as the mammoth and the thylacine. (Weidensaul's presentation of cloning is particularly good.)

I have several criticisms. One is that the narrative jumps around too much, at least for my taste: In one five-page stretch we're hurried through rediscoveries of coelacanths, a South American cloud rat and several species of lemurs. Another is that, despite the book's rich and resonant title, the narrative is often inappropriately breezy, given the tragic nature of the contents. This left me with the impression that the author, although seemingly engaged, was insufficiently awed by his subject matter.

The book is well researched and comprehensive—but in one sense, it's too comprehensive. Weidensaul's "desire to embrace a fundamentally weird world that encompasses all manner of oddball beasties and creepy monsters" is often on display here—he likes strange stuff and subjects the reader to it undiscriminatingly; his thematic net is filled with a motley catch. Along with extremely knowledgeable naturalists whose piercing insights lead to breathtaking rediscoveries that make for thrilling reading, his protagonists include a variety of know-nothings, fanatics, perpetrators of fraud and searchers after everything from lake monsters to creatures from other dimensions. The book reaches its nadir, and the tone comes apart, in a comment Weidensaul makes about Orange Eyes, "an 11-foot-tall orange ape-man with the requisite glowing orbs," (address Cleveland, Ohio): "Those who suspect the legend, and others like it, were concocted by horny teenaged boys trying to scare their dates into snuggling a bit closer are obviously callous cynics and should be ashamed of themselves."

Debunking such legends is hardly necessary. The lengthy treatment Weidensaul gives to loonies detracts from his discussion of the work of real scientists, whose endeavors do not deserve the indignity of being rolled into the same pages with discussions of Nessie and Fluorescent Freddie. Material of the latter sort is more appropriate for a book focused on the human propensity to kindle such tales; at the very least, it should have been placed in a separate junk chapter to sharply distinguish it from the rest of the book. Instead, two pages after Weidensaul subjects us to such inanities as skunk apes, devil monkeys and Mothman, we find a discussion of beaked whales—large, mysterious cetaceans who constitute one of the most intriguing living obscurities.

The pages wasted on crackpots would have been better spent on the short-tailed albatross and eskimo curlew, whose stories are rich in drama, tragedy and didactic value; their complete absence from this book is puzzling. I would have preferred that Weidensaul be more discerning in his selection of material, discussing fewer species and using them to illustrate certain themes. I also wish he had delved more deeply into the highly entertaining and informative stories he tells of the adventures, misfortunes and occasional exhilarating highs of serious naturalists. He is at his strongest and most authoritative when discussing something in depth.

The book's flaws are of a fortunate kind, in that the offending material can be skipped over. Readers have the option of breezing past the junk food and feasting instead on the more nourishing sections, such as Weidensaul's discussion of the black-footed ferret. This is the book's best story, offering glimpses of the incredible former abundance of North American wildlife (a mere 200 years ago, an estimated five billion prairie dogs—the ferret's food source—lived on the continent, with some single colonies occupying as much as 25,000 square miles); outrageous crimes against nature (the government still poisons prairie dogs, even in some national parks); bureaucratic bungling; introduced diseases; tragic accidents; and, against long odds, ultimate fragile success for the ferret and its advocates. In an account of animals who shared Pleistocene Europe with humans advanced enough to record hunting adventures in breathtaking cave art, Weidensaul's passion for the subject takes the helm, lending power to the story. A strong chapter on the thylacine is permeated with a palpable sense of excruciating near-salvation and apparently doomed hope for the animal's continued existence. Weidensaul concludes that chapter with an appropriate sense of gravity and some apt analysis, observing that "Perhaps we need the thylacine more than the thylacine—sleeping in its jars of alcohol, stuffed in museum display cases, or, just maybe, still running in the nighttime woods—needs us."

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