The Kingdom of Raritiesby Eric Dinerstein
When you look out your window, why are you so much more likely to see a robin or a sparrow than a Kirtland's warbler or a California condor? Why are some animals naturally rare and others so abundant? The quest to find and study seldom-seen jaguars and flamboyant Andean cocks-of-the-rock is as alluring to naturalists as it is vitally important to science. From… See more details below
When you look out your window, why are you so much more likely to see a robin or a sparrow than a Kirtland's warbler or a California condor? Why are some animals naturally rare and others so abundant? The quest to find and study seldom-seen jaguars and flamboyant Andean cocks-of-the-rock is as alluring to naturalists as it is vitally important to science. From the Himalayan slopes of Bhutan to the most isolated mountain ranges of New Guinea, The Kingdom of Rarities takes us to some of the least-traveled places on the planet to catch a glimpse of these unique animals and many others. As he shares stories of these species, Eric Dinerstein gives readers a deep appreciation of their ecological importance and the urgency of protecting all types of life — the uncommon and abundant alike.
An eye-opening tour of the rare and exotic, The Kingdom of Rarities offers us a new understanding of the natural world, one that places rarity at the center of conservation biology. Looking at real-time threats to biodiversity, from climate change to habitat fragmentation, and drawing on his long and distinguished scientific career, Dinerstein offers readers fresh insights into fascinating questions about the science of rarity and unforgettable experiences from the field.
“Excellent example of storytelling, nature writing, and science.”
"What makes an animal rare? Eric Dinerstein explains the nuanced answer in his book."
"The presence of large, potentially dangerous mammals connects us to something deep and primal and teaches us humility in a way that is unique and precious. We must not lose it." Dinerstein (Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations), Chief Scientist with the World Wildlife Fund, provides nature lovers with an armchair tour of the world, focusing on rare species from New Guinea to Hawaii. In clear, concise prose he discusses the circumstances responsible for rarity like evolution, habitat loss, and war. Such species possess an undeniable allure and he asks "how can we make them worth more alive than dead?" Dinerstein has visited many remote locations, from Bhutan to the Amazon, to study wildlife, and shares many personal observations of these places. By some estimates, 75% of life on Earth is comprised of rare species, and Dinerstein's study will give readers a new appreciation for the vast diversity of the planet. "Perhaps ahead of us is a prominent marker in our own development: the point when we truly value nature's diversity, a metric noted by conserving rare wildlife." Line drawings accompany the text, though color photos would be more fitting, but otherwise Dinerstein's study is highly recommended for readers with interests in biology, natural history, and ecology. (Jan.)
"Dinerstein captures this innate fascination in a worldwide tour of exotic places and spectacular species, from jaguars in the Amazon to birds of paradise in New Guinea. Along the way, he weaves in lessons in ecology as well as passionate calls for conservation action."
"Extraordinary and engrossing account . . . with a friendly intimacy, he offers a personal narrative, a travelogue, and a celebration of the natural world, not a polemic. When Dinerstein asks questions about biodiversity, habitat fragmentation, and conservation biology, he is constructive, engaging, and exceptionally well informed. He is also balanced and realistic, daring to ask which species are the most important to protect and why."
"An evocatively described natural-history tour of the world's rare species. . . . Dinerstein enthuses and informs without being overwhelming."
"As well as a scientific journey, The Kingdom of Rarities is also an adventure story—to meet the rare species that are central to this tale, the reader travels with the author to exotic locations including remote New Guinea, Hawaii, the heart of the Amazon, and the foothills of the Himalayas . . . this book's topic is fascinating."
"The well-traveled Mr. Dinerstein presents vivid case studies on the world's least common creatures, from a red hummingbird stranded on Robinson Crusoe Island off the coast of Chile to a cryptic forest-dwelling bovine in Vietnam . . . gripping."
"Why are jaguars rare, despite being South America's most powerful predator? Why, indeed, are most species rare? How can rare species exert a big effect on the landscape's structure and function? If you, too, are open to the fascination that rare animals hold for adventure travelers and passionate ecologists, you'll love the romance and exciting science that this book offers."
"In colorful prose that conjures up the rich spell of each landscape, Dinerstein takes us along on exhilarating expeditions that crisscross the globe and travel deep into the heart of rare species, while sharing his own rare expertise and a luminous sense of wonder."
"The Kingdom of Rarities is a rarity itself, a book whose author is so in command of his material that you don't realize how much you're learning; you're too caught up in the adventure of it all."
"Eric Dinerstein has given us a clear and expert account of a subject of increasing importance for the twenty-first century. The world is filling up with humans and species made rare—to whom we most urgently must devote more of our attention."
“What makes his book a good read is his deft writing and ability to bring his audience to the places he and his scientific colleagues have visited.”
"Dinerstein's text is admirably accessible to the non-scientist. . . . Besides the passing nods to ethnography, the book is also enlivened by occasional poetic touches, and an unexpectedly numinous regard for the aesthetics of the flora and fauna encountered."
"What makes his book a good read is his deft writing and ability to bring his audience to the places he and his scientific colleagues have visited."
"He has cumulated over 40 years of his studies and experiences to highlight how rare species have developed intricate and complex webs, and how their existence has profound impacts on the ecosystem(s) in which they live . . . expertly weaves in examples to provide a solid context for layperson."
"In prose that is both lyrical and exact, he takes readers through various 'motherlodes of rarities' in search of answers, from Cuba's Zapata Swamp through the jaguar-dense Madre de Dios region of Peru to the still little-known Vietnamese jungle."
"The book provides a superb balance between description, science and conservation. It's an easy, pleasant, and even exciting read, with the science gently fed to the reader as part of the book's adventure narrative."
"Dinerstein's accessible prose and informative, inviting style informs the reader without sounding like a textbook or a polemic."
"This is a truly fascinating and entertaining read—and a quick one as it is rather hard to put it down once you've started into it—and will no doubt have you looking at rare species in a whole new light, questioning what we really know of them, what their ecological roles truly are, and what might be done to preserve them in a way that is meaningful to their role in the local and global ecosystem."
"Dinerstein's book offers a kaleidoscopic and highly entertaining picture of some of the world's most remote and diverse ecological hotspots."
"...The Kingdom of Rarities has many virtues. It succeeds in presenting biodiversity research as an adventure and biodiversity conservation as crucial, necessary work. It describes numerous fascinating animals, greatly facilitated in this effort by Trudy Nicholson's beautiful and accurate illustrations. Dinerstein wears his learning lightly but deploys it to good effect. An annotated bibliography identifies books, articles and scientific papers for those who want to learn more about different aspects of rarity and conservation. As is usually the case with books from Island Press, the overall production is of high quality. All in all this is an excellent book."
"Excellent example of storytelling, nature writing, and science."
"Eric Dinerstein's engaging new book [is a] . . . zoological travelogue, observing rare species across the planet and contemplating, as he does so, why rarity is profoundly important for our understanding of nature and our efforts to conserve it."
"What makes an animal rare? Eric Dinerstein explains the nuanced answer in his book."
"[T]his personable travelogue was such an intellectual delight that I just had to tell you about it...Rereading this book was a joy—it was even better the second time through. The writing is compelling, the stories, captivating, and the scientific data, illuminating and well-chosen. ...engaging and thought-provoking chronicle... Passionate but never histrionic, Dinerstein deftly weaves together findings from many disparate fields of research, along with the urgent necessity to conserve these species."
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Read an Excerpt
The Kingdom of Rarities
By Eric Dinerstein
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2013 Eric Dinerstein
All rights reserved.
The Uncommon Menagerie
Riding on an elephant's back offers a privileged, if distorted, perspective on the natural world. Wildlife species that seem large and scary at eye level, such as rhinos and tigers, appear as miniaturized versions from this elevated vantage. My well-trained mount, Kirti Kali, plowed boldly through the dense twenty-foot-tall grasslands of Chitwan National Park in lowland Nepal, scattering spotted deer and wild boars in our path. On elephant-back one feels invincible. As we emerged from the tall grass into an open area, my driver, Gyan Bahadur, calmly steered Kirti alongside a rare greater one-horned rhinoceros—a dangerous species that, locally, tramples and kills several villagers a year. The two-ton female and her young calf continued grazing peacefully on the floodplain. The rhinos seemed oblivious to our presence because we had spent months habituating these aggressive creatures to close contact. As long as we remained on the elephant, rather than approaching on foot, the mother rhino would remain unfazed and we would stay in one piece.
My jungle wanderings also warped my perspective on how uncommon these animals had become. By 1988, at the end of my initial five years of research, I had recorded thousands of observations of Chitwan's 370 one-horned rhinos and had photographed, identified, and named nearly every one. Yet seeing them every day made me forget their global rarity. At the time, only about 1,500 survived in the wild worldwide; all but those in Chitwan roamed in Kaziranga National Park in northeastern India. Although the one-horned rhino's numbers have slowly increased since then—in 2012 there were over 2,900, distributed among twelve populations—this species remains among the most endangered large mammals on Earth. Its status during my initial study raised several questions: Had the ancestors of this rhino, a diverse ancient lineage, always been rare during their evolutionary history? Or is the rarity of the one-horned rhino a relatively recent phenomenon, triggered by habitat loss and poaching for the mythical qualities of the rhino's horn?
My ecological study took an unexpected turn when I asked Gyan to maneuver Kirti Kali into an ideal spot for a photograph. I raised my camera to capture an exquisite panorama: the rhino cow and calf in the foreground, perfectly framed by the Annapurna range and Mount Dhaulagiri to the north. Then I noticed some clumps of low trees that spoiled the picture's composition. Copses of a species called bhellur (Trewia nudiflora) stood out like archipelagoes in the midst of the grassland. I asked Gyan why the trees had assumed this pattern. He took a break from smoking a cigarette rolled in a jungle-leaf wrapper to answer my silly question. "Oh, it's the work of gaida," he said matter-of-factly, using the Nepali word for "rhino" and gesturing toward the tree islands. "Those are old rhino latrines."
Rhinoceroses return to the same places time after time to deposit their dung—not out of tidiness but because these communal latrines allow solitary animals living in dense vegetation to exchange vital data, via scents within the dung, about their whereabouts and sexual activity. The sheer size of the dung piles, sometimes dozens of meters long, and the dense stands of Trewia trees that sprang from them were a revelation to me. All the more so because when I first arrived in Chitwan, I had wondered how this giant herbivore could have even a minor influence in cropping the lush vegetation—the wall of green grass surrounding me—which was recharged each year by the summer monsoon.
The answer lay buried in the dung. By voraciously consuming Trewia fruit and defecating intact seeds in latrines scattered throughout the floodplain, the rhinos could rapidly convert the world's tallest grasslands into Trewia forests. Countervailing the rhino-dispersal effect were the annual floods, which wash away and bury Trewia seedlings, and the annual natural fires, which incinerate much of the previous year's crop. But some of these seedlings obviously survived to become tree islands. What remained as an indelible imprint for me was the staggering potential of rhinos to reshape their surroundings, implying, in this case, that ecological impact does not always reflect numerical abundance.
It would be a stretch to say that sifting through rhino dung or musing while on elephant-back triggered my fascination with rarity. But my observations of these rhinos, and observations that I and others had recorded of another globally rare denizen of their neighborhood, the tiger, made me wonder: What if more biologists fanned out to study in depth not the common mongoose or the ubiquitous spotted deer but members of Chitwan's uncommon menagerie—great hornbills, Gangetic dolphins, gharial crocodiles, sloth bears, and Indian bison? How might one's perspective on the natural world change? What novelties, complexities, and even counterintuitive elements might emerge, and what adventures lay in store for the pursuer of these rarities?
As a scientist, I knew that the interplay of rarity and abundance is central to understanding patterns of nature as well as understanding the idea of dynamic ecological balance. What do we mean by "rare," though? By what measure is a rhino or tiger considered rare? Most biologists would apply the term to a species that occupies a narrow geographic range, has a low abundance, or exhibits both traits. Often this label stems from a comparison of an uncommon creature with others that share its habitat or taxonomic group, but it can also be viewed in absolute terms. For example, sticking with rhinos, the greater one-horned rhinoceros is rare from a global perspective, with fewer than 3,000 individuals, but it's relatively common in comparison with the highly endangered Javan rhinoceros, of which fewer than 50 remain, and those restricted to one locale. In this book, I draw mainly on examples of rarity among mammals, birds, and plants—the creatures I know best. But the condition of rarity transcends appearance and taxonomy. Whether an organism has a backbone, a beak, pincers, or petals or is covered by scales, fur, feathers, or fins, the same rules apply—occupying a limited space geographically and exhibiting low population densities guarantees a place in what I call the Kingdom of Rarities.
The simple truth is that many, many species on Earth are rare, but few people other than biologists are even aware of this fact. A leading ecologist on the subject, Kevin Gaston, suggested an astonishing asymmetry of life on Earth: as few as 25 percent of the world's species, such as robins, rats, and roaches, may account for 90 to 95 percent of all individuals on Earth. But if Gaston's estimates are correct, as much as 75 percent of all species on Earth may be drawn from the ranks of the rare. It's a stunning idea to contemplate.
If relatively so few individual organisms on Earth make up the rare, why should biologists study rarity, the rhinos rather than the roaches? The obvious academic response is "Because we know so little about them." Rephrasing the question, though, brings into focus a profound and central riddle of nature: Why, wherever you land, do you always find a few superabundant species and a multitude of rare ones?
One of the first lessons in community ecology—the science of how species interact in nature—is the prevalence of rarity at any locale in the tropics. Sweep a forest plot with a butterfly net, identify all the trees in that tract, scan those trees for singing birds, and you'll find the same result: many individuals of a few species and a lengthy list of singletons. This pattern holds from the forests of Madre de Dios, Peru, to Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia. Even though rare species occur everywhere, we still know too little about how they fit into the big picture of our wild menagerie. But some intriguing answers have emerged regarding, for example, the roles various rare species play in shaping the form and functioning of ecosystems and how ecosystems are affected as particular rare species are lost.
Attention to rarity can raise vital questions: Are all rare species, for example, by definition on the verge of extinction? Have all species that are currently rare been historically rare? Which species common now are likely to become rare? Greater clarity on these fundamental issues will help shape our response to saving wild nature. Will species that are common now become rare as a result of changing climate? For example, how will egg-laying sea turtles find nesting sites when sea levels rise, and how will moisture-dependent frogs lay eggs when rain forests face prolonged droughts, in some cases by the middle of this century? When the microclimate at the summit of Mount Udzungwa in southern Tanzania changes in a profound way, will the African violet—ancestor of the familiar houseplant—and the Udzungwa partridge disappear, or will they be able to adapt to the new conditions?
During the 1980s, leading biologists began to suggest that we were in the midst of the sixth great extinction event in the history of Earth. And in 1995, Stuart Pimm, one of the fathers of modern conservation biology, calculated that the current rate of species extinctions was as much as 1,000 times the normal background extinction rate. If so, newly rare species may face different, and more serious, problems from those encountered by species that have historically been rare—another major reason for exploring rarity in the natural world.
Beyond the extinction crisis, some scientists refer to our current epoch, the Holocene, as the Anthropocene or the Homogenocene, terms that describe two aspects of a new ecological state that is still poorly understood. The first refers to our period, wherein the human footprint extends everywhere in nature. The second refers to another kind of affront in which certain species have spread or been introduced by humans far beyond these species' original range and, as a result, natural habitats around the world, full of invasive species, begin to resemble one another. Being rare in this brave new homogenized world, as we'll see in the case of Hawaii, could mean something much different from when these same species first appeared in relative isolation. Rarity is not just a condition of nature; it is a condition that can be—and has been—imposed on species by human activity, all too often sending them on the road toward endangerment and extinction. In short, viewing the natural world through the lens of rarity can bring certain facts and species traits to our attention that we might otherwise overlook. Understanding these facts and traits may in turn provide insights that can help us save species from the current state of environmental deterioration.
Many conservation biologists target "saving rare species" as the ultimate aim of their work. Yet rarity, as a phenomenon in nature, can take many forms, not only among species, although that is central, but also in the building blocks of the natural world: genes, populations of species, habitats, assemblages, and ecological and evolutionary phenomena. Species, with few exceptions, are made up of populations distributed across the landscape. Saving only one population of each rare species simply as a token gesture would be of little ecological value, especially where those species play a role in maintaining a given ecosystem's integrity. So an essential goal is to conserve multiple populations of species and the genetic, ecological, and behavioral features that these building blocks contain. Conserving dispersed populations and their genetic variability gives species a better chance of adapting to and persisting amid changing conditions, such as a rapidly changing climate or invasion of their homeland by introduced species.
Buried within the species extinction crisis is another, less publicized calamity: the increasing rarity of species populations. These losses of populations, as well as in some cases entire species, have led biologists to sound warning after warning. The eminent biologist E. O. Wilson, for example, pronounced in a speech in early 2000 that "biodiversity cannot afford another century like the last one. We are about to lose thousands of species a year, especially in rainforests." Wilson could have extended the depth of the problem, if risking the simplicity of his message, by adding a phrase whose meaning has gone unnoticed by the general public: we have been losing populations of species faster than we have been losing species themselves.
These two concerns—rarity of species and paucity of particular populations—merge when it comes to those species whose entire earthly existence is represented by a single population, as a result of either natural forces or human encroachment. Who are these singleton species, and how many of them are now close to the abyss of extinction?
In 2003, several colleagues and I put together a paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to address this question, name those species, and suggest how their imminent extinction might be prevented. Our work on the paper, which was published in 2005, sparked the scientific basis for this book, an interpretation of the evolutionary and contemporary aspects of rarity. We focused our effort on a subgroup of relatively well known but threatened vertebrates, our fellow creatures with backbones—birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians (fishes are yet to be analyzed). We postulated that certain of these species were already so uncommon that they would be extinction's next dodo birds unless action were taken to prevent their disappearance.
To begin, we turned to the gold standard for evaluating rarity of wild species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and its famed Red List of Threatened Species, which ranks species on the basis of sizes of remaining populations. The IUCN assigns the category "endangered" or "critically endangered" to species whose numbers have plummeted toward extinction. We then went a step further. "Let's name the rarest of the rare, those species whose entire global range is limited to one population at a single site," my colleague John Lamoreux suggested. He was proposing that we limit our survey to such species as the Bloody Bay poison frog, which hails from the last patches of rain forest on the island of Trinidad, the only place on Earth where it can be found.
Once a species such as the Bloody Bay poison frog is restricted to a single dot on the map, if one or another of several catastrophes strikes—if the spot is plowed, burned, flooded, drained, paved, polluted, or overrun with pigs, rats, or other invasive species—the threatened species that lived in that dot is gone: vanished forever. Rarity then becomes the precursor to extinction or, at least, its preexisting condition. Alternatively, if you save the place, you save the rare species—conservation in black-and-white.
Our results provided some new insights and a number of surprises. First, despite there being 20,000 species on the IUCN Red List, only 800 species found at 600 sites (some species shared the same site) met our criteria. Second, half of the species limited to a single site turned out to be amphibians. Third, many single-population species were restricted to isolated mountaintops. A botanist on our team, George Schatz, cautioned the vertebrate specialists against any euphoric notion that saving the world's rarities might be as easy as saving some isolated mountaintops where few people live. "Remember," he warned, "the 250,000 or so vascular plant species have yet to be evaluated for levels of threat. At least 10 percent of these are known only from the single site where they were first collected." There is a joke among field biologists that rarity is partly a natural phenomenon and partly the result of some less energetic biologists failing to wander far enough from the road or the field station in surveying their specialty. There may be an ounce of truth to that, but the idea that the populations of many plant species, and the insect species they host, could be so few only reaffirms the important role of rarity, especially in the tropics.
The next question for our group of biologists was which rare species or place we should try to save first. This exercise drew us to a global map and triggered much debate. "Here." Mike Parr leaned over northern South America to point out the location of a mother lode of rarities. His pen tip lingered on a massif that stood by itself in northern Colombia, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The solitary giant sat about 42 kilometers from the Caribbean coast and about 115 kilometers from where the sawtooth eruptions of the northern Andean chain began. Santa Marta in Colombia, like Mounts Kilimanjaro and Udzungwa in Tanzania, Mount Cameroon on the border of Nigeria and Cameroon, and Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, are but a few of the dozens of solitary mountains in the tropical belt that are hotbeds of natural rarities. Why this might be so was one of the questions I wanted to investigate.
Excerpted from The Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein. Copyright © 2013 Eric Dinerstein. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Eric Dinerstein is Director of Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions at RESOLVE. Previously, he was Lead Scientist and Vice President for Conservation Science at the World Wildlife Fund. Over the past forty years he has studied bears, rhinos, tigers, bats, and plants and many other creatures around the globe, and he remains active in the conservation of rare species. He has published over one hundred scientific papers and several books, including The Return of the Unicorns: The Natural History and Conservation of the Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros, Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations, The Kingdom of Rarities, and What Elephants Know: A Novel. In 2007, Tigerland won the American Association for the Advancement of Science's award for science writing, the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books.
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Rarity looked around at Canterlot. It was the same as he left it, but everyone was lined up at shop that sold what but cloths that Rarity had made. She trotted into the crowd, and everypony gasped and looked at her. She looked at the shop. On the window it said "Fine Rarities", and Rarity's cutie mark was displayed next to it. She trotted inside and saw every single dress she had ever made in there, even ones she had made for her friends! She saw the one she made Twilight fir her birthday, and tears filled her eyes. I must have changed the future somehow when I was late for the picnic! she thought. I must find Doctor Hooves! She galloped outside and started asking everypony if anypony had seen him. "No I haven't seen him," were all their answers. "Oh dear," Rarity whined. "This is just great! For all I know if I go back to Ponyville all my friends won't be my friends, all because I missed the picnic! And now Doctor Hooves has gone missing! What do I do?" That night, she slept restlessly, thinking of what might happen if she doesn't find the Doctor soon. She woke up the next morning to a knock at her door. She jumped out of her bed and answered it. It was the mailpony. "I've got a letter here for Rarity," he said. Rarity took the letter and read it. It said, "Dear Rarity, I heard of your troubles and I know you want my help. In the town square is the police box. Just walk into it and it will take you back again. You can fix what you did wrong then come back to the future and everything will be back to normal. Yours Truely, Doctor Hooves." After reading the letter, Rarity quickly galloped to the town square and trotted into the police box. She felt the box move under her hooves and fainted from dizzyness. ~Chapter four in the next result. I will rewrite chapter one in the fifth result because the book it was at disappeared. Im sorry this chapter is so short. RD 8\/\