The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Speciesby Weidensaul
"Three or four times an hour, eighty or more times a day, a unique species of plant or animal vanishes forever. It is, scientists say, the worst global extinction crisis in the last sixty-five million years - the hemorrhage of thirty thousand irreplaceable life-forms each year. And yet every so often one of these lost species resurfaces - such as the Indian forest… See more details below
"Three or four times an hour, eighty or more times a day, a unique species of plant or animal vanishes forever. It is, scientists say, the worst global extinction crisis in the last sixty-five million years - the hemorrhage of thirty thousand irreplaceable life-forms each year. And yet every so often one of these lost species resurfaces - such as the Indian forest owlet, considered extinct for more than a century when it was rediscovered in 1997, or Gilbert's potoroo, an endearing marsupial lost for 125 years until it was found in western Australia in 1994. Like heirlooms plucked from a burning house, they are gifts to an increasingly impoverished world." In The Ghost with Trembling Wings, naturalist Scott Weidensaul pursues these stories of loss and recovery, of endurance against the odds, and of surprising resurrections. The search takes Weidensaul to the rain forests of the Caribbean and Brazil in pursuit of long-lost birds, to the rugged mountains of Tasmania for the striped, wolflike marsupial known as the thylacine, to cloning laboratories where scientists struggle to re-create long-extinct animals, and even to the moorlands and tidy farms of England on the trail of mysterious black panthers whose existence seems to depend on the faith of those looking for them. The Ghost with Trembling Wings is a book of exploration and a survey of the frontiers of modern science and wildlife biology. It is, in the end, the story of our desire for a wilder, bigger, more complete world.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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THE GHOST WITH TREMBLING WINGS
Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species
By Scott Weidensaul
North Point Press
Copyright © 2002 Scott Weidensaul.
All rights reserved.
The overnight rain had stopped, leaving the forest heavy with moisture and the trail slick with mud. I moved down the path in the dim green predawn light, beneath palms and tall mahogany trees hung with vines, keeping half an eye on the groundmindful that a snake, one of the big, venomous fer-de-lances that blend so well with fallen leaves, might be returning late from a night of hunting.
The air was overflowing with bird songs, only a few of which I recognized; the clear, piercing whistles of rufous-throated solitaires, and the buzzy, hurry-up-and-wait melody of the tiny bananaquits, which flitted ahead of me like yellow insects. The path wound its way down into ravines, across small, clear jungle streams, and back up again, and wrapped around the base of sodden cliffs covered with ferns, from which choruses of tree frogs still called, unwilling to relinquish the night.
After an hour of hiking, I rounded a bend and the forest fell away suddenly into a deep gash. I could finally see what I'd already known that I was high on the side of a steep mountain, overlooking narrow valleys enclosed by craggy, tree-covered hills, their summits made indistinct by ragged gray clouds that whipped across them on the strong breeze.
St. Lucia lies midway down the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, where the chain crooks like a bent finger toward Venezuela, 400 miles to the south. It is a volcanic island, heavily mountainous and covered in forestthe very picture of a tropical paradise, known through history as "the Helen of the Caribbean" for its natural beauty. Tourist resorts rim the coasts, while the interior is largely protected in a series of government forest reserves; unlike many of its neighbors in the Caribbean, St. Lucia has maintained much of its native habitat, making it an emerging mecca for ecotourism.
The northeast trade winds, which blow almost constantly through the winter dry season, wicked the sweat from me as I settled down at the edge of the overlook for a rest, unslinging my binoculars. In 1994, when a hurricane swept the region, torrential rains loosened the soil, producing catastrophic landslides across the island. The damage was far less in the forest reserves, where the thick jungle held the soil in place better than farmland or scrub did, but this hillside had nevertheless torn loose, entombing hundred-foot-tall trees in a slurry of heavy mud that roared into the valley below. Now, years later, the dizzyingly steep wall of the old slide zone was covered with fresh green growth, edged by a few old canopy trees that somehow escaped the carnage and stood lonely and tall.
A pair of large parrots, growling and squawking like preschoolers, flew out of the mist and down into the valley, blue and yellow flashing on their wings before they were swallowed by the trees. A broad-winged hawk wheeled overhead, giving a high, thin scream, then landed near the top of one of the tall trees and began to meticulously preen its feathers.
Sometimes, in the forest, it pays to play a hunch. I don't know why, but as I watched the hawk, I froze, binoculars halfway to my eyes, then very slowly turned my head to look behind me. An agouti was emerging from the dark tunnel of the trail. It is hard to describe an agouti; to call it a rodent, however biologically accurate that may be, conveys an entirely inaccurate impression, for there was nothing at all furtive or slinky about it. It weighed about 10 pounds and was the size of a fox, and looked like a cross between a sleek guinea pig and a deerslender legs, a solid, squared-off body with no visible tail, and large, dark eyes. It stopped and looked around, its Roman nose twitching, the low sun casting a green iridescence over its glossy brown fur.
I had seen agoutis before in the rain forests of Central and South America, but only as indistinct shapes hurtling across the trail in the twilight or scuffling in the dark just beyond my flashlight beam. The head had a rabbitish look despite the small ears, and the hair around the rump was coarser and longer than the fine pelt on its neck and shoulders; when an agouti is alarmed, it flares this corona of bristles like a grass skirt.
The agouti padded forward on its small pink feet until it was within a foot of the pack lying by my side. Only then did it seem to notice me, staring up with those luminous eyes. It did a graceful pirouette of a hop, stopping to look back as if in disbelief. It flared its rump hair, skittered a few more yards, and stopped once more to peer at me. Then it finally seemed to resolve things in its own mind, and trotted off with dignified deliberation.
The enchantment broke, and I turned back to stare at the valleys and mountains spread below me, gauging my next move. I wasn't in the Caribbean to commune with rodentsI was there to solve a mystery. Somewhere down in that intensely green, intensely vertical landscape, a lost soul had been hiding for more than half a century. I was trying to find it.
Biologists estimate there are between 10 and 30 million species of living things on our planet, only a fraction of which have been described and catalogued. New species come to light every day, from obscure beetles to unknown birds and even a few large mammals. The two centers of this biological diversity are tropical ecosystems, which support almost incomprehensible numbers of plants and animals, and islands, which by their isolation promote the rapid evolution of unique life forms. Tropical islands, like those of the Caribbean, are thus doubly blessed by nature.
Prior to European discovery, virtually every island in the Antilles held species that were found nowhere else in the worldendemics, as they are known. Hispaniola had to itself three species of shrew, two kinds of ground sloth (one of which weighed 150 pounds), seven species of chunky rodents called hutias, a squirrel-sized insectivore with a rat-like tail and an impossibly long, pointy snout known as a solenodon, as well as more than two dozen unique birds. Jamaica had roughly thirty endemic bird species, as well as a hutia, five endemic snakes, a unique tree frog, two species of endemic bats, an iguana, and several smaller lizards called galliwasps. Cuba, the biggest island in the Caribbean basin, had the greatest diversity of life, including half a dozen sloths, a 400 pounder among them, and more than two dozen endemic birds, one of which, the bee hummingbird, is, at a shade over 2 inches long, the world's smallest bird. (Cuba's natural wealth is a textbook example of the principles of biogeography, a main rule of which is that the larger an island, or the closer it lies to the mainland, the greater the diversity of life it will support. But the Antilles also showcase a corollary: The farther from the mainland an island is, the more uniquely evolved its flora and fauna tend to be.)
Unfortunately, island species tend to be a bit less adaptable than their mainland counterparts, especially when confronted with new predators, and because of their limited range and population size, they are all the more susceptible to extinction. At the end of the last ice age, the West Indies were populated with an assortment of animals that would appear bizarre to modern eyes: giant ground sloths; rodents the size of small bears; several species of flightless owls on Cuba that were 3 feet tall, with long, heronlike legs for running down their prey; and a condor rivaling today's Andean condor in size. Many of these became extinct after the end of the ice age, 10,000 years ago, an extinction wave that intensified after Amerindians settled the islands, starting between 7,000 and 4,500 years ago. Paleontologists call these "first-contact extinctions," on the assumption that human hunting drove the losses. (But if humans took away, they also gave: agoutis like the one I saw were not native to the Caribbean but were apparently brought from South America by natives as a food supply.)
The large, the flightless, the tasty, and the unwary winked out on island after island, a trend that repeated itself with smaller and fleeter species when Europeans began to colonize the region in the sixteenth century. For instance, at least fifteen or sixteen species of parrots, including eight species of large macaws, became extinct after 1600, most of them now known only from notations in the logbooks of early explorers, who found them as palatable in the pot as they were colorful in the air. One species, from St. Croix, is known from only a single bone. The Cuban macaw, a stunning bird nearly 2 feet long, with a red head and body and blue wings, lasted a bit longer, finally disappearing at the end of the nineteenth century
St. Lucia is very smallonly 27 miles long and, at its most expansive, just 14 wide, covering barely 240 square milesand neighboring islands like St. Vincent and Martinique provided stepping-stones for colonizing wildlife. Consequently, its endemism rate is fairly low; there is a colorful ground lizard, a nonvenomous grass snake, a unique race of boa constrictor, and five species of endemic birds. The endangered St. Lucian parrot, or jacquot, which numbers barely five hundred individuals, is large and noisy, with a cobalt-blue face, a rich suffusion of red down the chest and belly, and splashes of blue, yellow, and red on the wings. There is the St. Lucian pewee, a species of flycatcher with a cinnamon breast, and a black-finch with bubblegum-pink legs. The St. Lucian oriole is vivid orange and black; like the parrot, it epitomizes the dazzle we expect from tropical birds.
There is precious little dazzle to the fifth species on St. Lucia's list of endemic birds, the Semper's warbler, which may be the dullest tropical bird on Earth. It is notable not for its plumage (which is the color of oatmeal, and as exciting) or its song (which no one has ever described or recorded), but solely for its rarity.
When the French and English first began squabbling over who got to keep St. Luciaa disagreement that would last 150 years and see the island change hands fourteen timesSemper's warbler was fairly common in the lush mountain rain forests. It was first collected for science in the 1870s by a St. Lucian clergyman, the Reverend John E. Semper, and eventually named in his honor, though the Creole inhabitants of the island knew it long before as the pied blanc, or "white foot," because of its large, pale legs. The bird's scientific name acknowledges the same feature, merging the Greek words for "white feet" to create its genus name, Leucopeza.
Semper's warbler is about 5 inches long and graydishwater gray, battleship gray, old-movie gray. Dull, bland, flat: even the adjectives that best describe it are monosyllabic and boring. It is the kind of creature that birders dismiss as an LBJ, a "little brown jobbie," but even that suggests too much pizzazz. And yet, despite its lackluster appearance, birders have been combing St. Lucia's forests in search of it for years drawn not by looks, but by the cachet of extinction. For within a few decades following its discovery, Semper's warbler went from common to kaput.
Judging by the number of specimens found in collections from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Semper's warbler must have been widespread, but by the late 1920s, the Caribbean ornithologist James Bond spent weeks looking for it without success. (This was the same James Bond whose name was later appropriated, with his permission, for Ian Fleming's fictional secret agent.) Some worried that the species was extinct, but kept on hunting. A single female was located in 1934 and promptly shot; at that time, stuffing a specimen for a collection was sometimes considered more important than preserving the living species.
Stanley John, the St. Lucian who collected the 1934 specimen, spent further decades searching for the bird, which vanished for another twenty-seven years. On May 21, 1961, John spotted another left alive this timealong the eastern coast near the village of Louvet. Like all the other recorded sightings, it was found in virgin forest with a heavy understory of ferns; John and other hunters said the species made a "soft tuck-tick-tick-tuck" call, pumped its tail up and down when perched, and sometimes quivered its wings when flushed.
Since then, Semper's warbler has been a cipher. Nothing is known of where, when, or how it built its nest, how many eggs it laid or what markings they bore, what the juvenile plumage looked like, or even what the male's song sounded like. Most important, nothing is known of its statuswhether it is alive or dead. It has been written off on many occasions, only to pop up again in tantalizing but unsubstantiated reports.
One sighting came in 1969, another in 1972, still others in 1989 and 1995. The trouble with sight records, of course, is the lack of any form of objective proof. The 1972 sighting, for instance, is largely dismissed by experts because the two people who claimed to have seen Semper's warbler were inexperienced with Caribbean birds in general and the area in which they said they saw it was completely unlike the habitat in which it had always been found. By contrast, the 1989 sighting was made by Donald Anthony, an experienced wildlife biologist in the St. Lucian Forestry Department, who was hiking on Gros Piton, a high, sharp spike of a mountain along the southeast coast. On the face of it, this would seem good proof of the species' survivalyet it was a quick, fleeting glimpse, and despite another twenty-six ascents of Gros Piton in the years that followed, Anthony has never seen another Semper's warbler, leaving some to wonder if his brief original sighting was a mistake.
Why all the fuss over a dull little bird? Like a relative who isn't appreciated until she's gone, many creatures that were ignored, even vilified, in life become icons in the grand death of extinction. In the nineteenth century, mountain lions (also known as cougars or panthers) were hunted down with such vigor that they were exterminated in every state east of the Mississippi, except for a small population in Florida and perhaps some in the wilderness of New Brunswick. Within a generation of their extinction in the Appalachians, however, people began to report lion sightings in places like New York, Pennsylvania, and the southern highlands of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennesseereporting them not with the hatred once reserved for a large predator but with barely contained excitement.
The question of whether or not cougars survive in the East illustrates many of the difficulties and subtle allure that go with such mysteries. The subspecies of the cougar that originally inhabited the Northeast, Puma concolor cougar, has been considered extinct since the early 1900s, even though it is officially listed as "endangered" under both the federal Endangered Species Act and CITES, the international treaty that covers threatened plants and animals; this status provides protection should a cougar miraculously reappear. And reappear they doprivate organizations that track lion sightings in the East say they get hundreds of reports every year, some from people like foresters, game wardens, and biologists who are hard to dismiss as crackpots. Yet outside of New England, where Canadian cougars may have recolonized, there has been almost no physical evidence, like warm road-killed bodies or indisputable photographs. (There have been a few cougars that have been shot over the years, but close examination usually shows them to be of the Latin American subspecies common in captivity.)
I live in the Appalachians, and I know people who claim to have seen cougars here. Some are friends of mine, sturdy, reliable people. The idea is incredibly seductivethe notion that these gentle mountains, long settled and so badly misused by people for centuries, could have reclaimed such a potent symbol of wilderness as the mountain lion. Sometimes, I think, we need to believe such things even when the evidence (or its absence) suggests we are deluding ourselves. Deep down in our overcivilized hearts, we need the world to be bigger, and more mysterious, and more exciting than it appears to be in the cold light of dayespecially in this age, when the planet shrinks daily and no place seems truly remote or unknown. People keep looking for the long-extinct Bachman's warbler or the marsupial Tasmanian "tiger" for the same reasons that they go to mediums in hope of contacting dear, departed Aunt Louise. We're unwilling to accept that there isn't more to the world than what we can see.
Excerpted from THE GHOST WITH TREMBLING WINGS by Scott Weidensaul. Copyright © 2002 by Scott Weidensaul. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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