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The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species    by Scott Weidensaul order for
Ghost with Trembling Wings
by Scott Weidensaul
Order:  USA  Can
North Point, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Scott Weidensaul takes us all over the world on an ecological mystery tour in search of lost species. Though most are truly extinct, a very small number have proven to be not so lost after all, and others probably only ever existed in our collective imagination. The author reveals the complexity of the issues involved in locating some endangered species, in saving them from extinction, and in re-introducing to a natural habitat. There is even some discussion of emerging technology that might allow science to 'raise the dead' of extinct species by cloning.

The tale begins with a search for Semper's warbler in that 'mecca for ecotourism', St. Lucia, and ends with a gruelling Brazilian expedition on the elusive trail of the cone-billed tanager. Facts like the number of species driven to extinction each year (30,000) and the discovery of new (to humanity) critters like the okapi as recently as the 1990s, are fascinating. The commentary is witty, as in comparison of a meteor's ability to cause ecological calamity with ours ... 'At least you can't accuse a meteor of premeditated stupidity.' Weidensaul shows us the purported habitats of a variety of elusive beasties - like the golden toad of Costa Rica, the ivorybill woodpecker of Mississippi, or tomb rats of Peru - along with amusing tales of discovery. For example, one scientist almost stepped on a night parrot carcass in Australia and another had a Fiji petrel clip his ear while on search for it.

There are sad stories of the ability of well-meaning experts to kill off species while studying how to save them, and entertaining tales of crypto-hunters (who search for hidden animals) and their ability to 'strain at gnats while swallowing camels'. Objects of their obsession range from Appalachian UFO's ('unidentified feline objects') to ABC's ('alien big cats') in Gloucestershire, from Nessie to the yeti and his associates all over the globe. Weidensaul talks of the 'tantalizing whiff of maybe' surrounding these creatures, of scientific explanations like seiche waves for Nessie, and of Carl Sagan's 'baloney detection kit', used to separate truth from fiction. He postulates both our need for mystery in the world and Maehr's 'compulsion to look for predators' as roots of our obsession with such fantastic animals.

From the fantasy of cryptozoology, the author jumps into science fiction that is gradually becoming science. There have been experiments in backcrossing aurochs and tarpans to bring Paleolithic cave paintings alive, and more recent research towards cloning extinct species (one to bring back the huia, a type of wattlebird, being aptly nicknamed Jurassic Lark by the New Zealand Press). Other potential cloning targets have been the ice age wooly mammoth, and the Australian tiger, the thylacine. These processes appear to be long, expensive (especially to clone enough individuals to promulgate the species) and rife with technical difficulties.

Though some of the accounts in The Ghost with Trembling Wings may seem like descriptions of Don Quixote tilting at windmills, it is overall a marvellous celebration of diversity in an ever shrinking world, whose wild places still hold secrets and remain 'fit habitat for myths and monsters, a place where dreams can live.' This is an important book for any who care about those wild places, their remaining inhabitants, and about hope.

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