The tiny, lungless Thorius salamander from southern Mexico, thinner than a match and smaller than a quarter. The lushly white-coated Saki, an arboreal monkey from the Brazilian rainforests. The olinguito, a native of the Andes, which looks part mongoose, part teddy bear. These fantastic species are all new to science – at least newly named and identified; but they weren't discovered in the wild, instead, they were unearthed in the drawers and cavernous basements of natural history museums. As Christopher Kemp reveals in The Lost Species, hiding in the cabinets and storage units of natural history museums is a treasure trove of discovery waiting to happen.
With Kemp as our guide, we go spelunking into museum basements, dig through specimen trays, and inspect the drawers and jars of collections, scientific detectives on the hunt for new species. We discover king crabs from 1906, unidentified tarantulas, mislabeled Himalayan landsnails, an unknown rove beetle originally collected by Darwin, and an overlooked squeaker frog, among other curiosities. In each case, these specimens sat quietly for decades – sometimes longer than a century – within the collections of museums, before sharp-eyed scientists understood they were new. Each year, scientists continue to encounter new species in museum collections – a stark reminder that we have named only a fraction of the world's biodiversity. Sadly, some specimens have waited so long to be named that they are gone from the wild before they were identified, victims of climate change and habitat loss. As Kemp shows, these stories showcase the enduring importance of these very collections.
The Lost Species vividly tells these stories of discovery – from the latest information on each creature to the people who collected them and the scientists who finally realised what they had unearthed – and will inspire many a museumgoer to want to peek behind the closed doors and rummage through the archives.
"As part of the rising concern for global biodiversity, Christopher Kemp makes clear the value of preserved specimens in basic research. He successfully presents their study as part science, part history, and part adventure."
– Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor, emeritus, Harvard University
"Natural history museums and their collections come alive with Kemp's inside stories of new species formerly hidden away in museum drawers and jars. Anyone who appreciates discovery and has an interest in museums, history, and biodiversity will find plenty to enjoy in The Lost Species, an intriguing, engaging, and conversational read."
– Marty Crump, author of Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adder's Fork and Lizard's Leg: The Lore and Mythology of Amphibians and Reptiles
"The natural history museums of the world are full of surprises – undescribed species, from flying foxes to king crabs – sitting on their shelves waiting for someone to notice. Kemp vividly brings to life the stories of these specimens, and the people who collect and describe them. The Lost Species will delight any reader who cares about discovery, adventure, and the little-known planet that sustains us."
– Richard Conniff, author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth
"Major natural history museums of the world today collectively hold an enormous, irreplaceable collection of scientific objects numbering in the billions. Among this library of life and culture that has been assembled over several centuries, each piece has its own tale to tell. Christopher Kemp vividly brings several of these stories to life in The Lost Species. He chooses pieces ranging from a lowly nematode worm to the mighty dinosaur Apatosaurus (formerly known as Brontosaurus) to engage us. He presents these specimens to us not only as voucher specimens of Earth's biodiversity, but also as examples of human endeavor surrounding their discovery and eventual study. A great read for anyone interested in natural history museum collections, how they came to be, and what we can learn from them."
– Lance Grande, author of Curators
1. Pushed up a Mountain and into the Clouds: The Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblinai)
2. Beneath a Color 83 Sky: The Ucucha Mouse (Thomasomys ucucha)
3. Going on a Tapir Hunt: The Little Black Tapir (Tapirus kabomani)
4. A Taxonomic Confusion: The Saki Monkeys (Pithecia genus)
5. Scattered to the Corners of the World: The Arfak Pygmy Bandicoot (Microperoryctes aplini)
6. The One That Got Away for 160 Years: Wallace’s Pike Cichlid (Crenicichla monicae)
7. Here Be Dragons: The Ruby Seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea)
8. A Century in a Jar: The Thorius Salamanders
9. From a Green Bowl: The Overlooked Squeaker Frog (Arthroleptis kutogundua)
10. A Body and a Disembodied Tail: Smith’s Hidden Gecko (Cyrtodactylus celatus)
11. Treasure in the By-Catch: The Gall Wasps (Cynipoidea species)
12. The Biomimic: The Lightning Cockroach (Lucihormetica luckae)
13. Sunk beneath the Surface in a Sea of Beetles: Darwin’s Rove Beetle (Darwinilus sedarisi)
14. The Spoils of a Distant War: The Congo Duskhawker Dragonfly (Gynacantha congolica)
15. A Specimen in Two Halves: Muir’s Wedge-Shaped Beetle (Rhipidocyrtus muiri)
16. Mary Kingsley’s Longhorn Beetle (Pseudictator kingsleyae)
17. The Giant Flies (Gauromydas papavero and Gauromydas mateus)
18. It Came from Area 51: The Atomic Tarantula Spider (Aphonopelma atomicum)
19. The Host with the Most: The Nematode Worm (Ohbayashinema aspeira)
20. From a Time Machine on Cromwell Road: Ablett’s Land Snail (Pseudopomatias abletti)
21. In Sight of Land: Payden’s Isopod (Exosphaeroma paydenae)
22. A Ball of Spines: Makarov’s King Crab (Paralomis makarovi)
23. In an Ikea Bag: The Custard Apple Family (Monanthotaxis Genus)
24. Waiting with Their Jackets On: The Fossils (Paleontology Specimens Collected by Elmer Riggs)
25. The First Art: The Earliest Hominin Engraving (a 500,000-Year-Old Shell)
Illustration Captions and Credits
Such a book with photos of such rare or never before photographed species and specimens needs colour photography in order for people to fully appreciate the full story being put forward and understand what they are looking at and reading about. Black and white photos are great as an art form, which this book isn't.
Planet Earth is home to a staggering number of species. A 2011 article in PloS Biology gave an educated guess of 8.7 million known species of eukaryotes (this is the domain of life to which all multicellular life forms – plants, insects, fungi, mammals etc. – belong, but excludes single-celled life forms such as bacteria). More staggering still is that this probably is only 10-12% of all existing species, with an estimated 86% of terrestrial species and 91% of marine species as of yet undiscovered.
So, scientists describe new species of plants and animals all the time. This much you probably know. What might come as a surprise, however, is that many of these discoveries are not made in the field, but in the massive natural history collections housed in museums around the world. In The Lost Species, Christopher Kemp takes the reader on a tour through the collections to reveal the stories behind some of these discoveries.
The book is divided into two parts, one with ten chapters on vertebrates, the other with twelve chapters on invertebrates (sorry botanists and palaeontologists, you were given only one chapter each). Kemp goes well beyond just giving us a dry description of the details of each species. Each newly described species has a story to tell, multiple stories often. Stories of their initial collection – sometimes by luminaries such as president Roosevelt (a tapir), Alfred Russell Wallace (a cichlid) or Charles Darwin himself (a beetle) – that are livened up by passages from diaries or letters. But also stories of their subsequent rediscovery and description. Stories of perseverance and hard work, of researchers spending years of their life visiting museum collections or borrowing specimens to compare all the known material and becoming self-taught experts on a species in the process. Stories of curiosity, of people hungering to better understand our world and the creatures that live in it. Above all, it seems, stories of serendipity and luck, of being in the right place at the right time, of opening up jars or drawers in the cavernous depths of off-limits storage facilities and realising:"Hey, I have never seen anything like this before". And even where Kemp describes the species, his prose is lyrical, poetic sometimes. To give you an example:
"under a microscope a cynipid wasp is beautiful: black and streamlined like a miniature fighter jet [...] compound eyes glint like chrome mesh" [p. 99]
In Kemp's hands, zoologist Eric Hoberg, who specialises in parasitic worms, becomes the keeper of a house of horrors, one of his study subjects "emerging from a dead grasshopper in a squirming coil like a magic trick no one wants to see". There are moments that Kemp had me laughing out loud when describing the sometimes bizarre and otherworldly creatures that surround us.
I think it is safe to say that if natural history museums have a dirty little secret it is that collecting specimens is much less time-consuming than describing species. As a consequence of centuries of collection efforts by naturalists and explorers, the world's natural history museums are overflowing with literally billions of specimens (which does raise some troubling questions about how money and effort is allocated...). Much of this material goes undescribed, a large chunk (Kemp quotes estimates of as much as 50%!) has been misidentified. For many groups only highly-trained specialists, taxonomists, can make the distinction between species, and recognising and describing new ones can take years of painstaking work. The situation is only made worse by the lack of curators and qualified taxonomists. And seeing that many of these species are not necessarily the sexiest (nematodes, anyone?) funding cuts are making the chronic shortage of money and manpower only worse. The amount of work that remains to be done is dizzying and sobering at the same time. We would need armies of taxonomists to get to grips with it. The Lost Species is filled with real-life examples of the unknowns that DeNicola described in theoretical terms in Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don't Know.
You might ask "Who cares?" Does it really matter whether we know that some bandicoot scurrying through the undergrowth of a tropical forest in Papua New Guinea is not actually one, but two species? Or that some genus of tarantula in the United States was incorrectly described by a 19th-century systematist and that several species turn out to be one and the same? This goes right to the heart of the question why we should care about biodiversity at all, something I wrote more about in my review of Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics.
It is a question Kemp brings up throughout the book. Obviously, he thinks it does matter, for the simple reason that you cannot protect that which you do not know. Before we can even talk about the biology of a species or its role in an ecosystem, it needs to have a name. To understand the world around us, how it is changing, and what it was like in the past, you need to have names for the creatures that inhabited it then and now. Without these labels, without these identities, we cannot even begin to have a conversation.
Full of wonder and adventure, The Lost Species is an amazing read that I simply could not put down. It made me search the internet for citizen science projects to see how I can help out unlocking some of this knowledge. Taxonomists and curators have a great advocate and standard bearer in Kemp and are indebted to him for putting their work and its importance in the limelight. Simply put, this book should be in the shop of every natural history museum and is a great read next to Grande's Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums.
Christopher Kemp is a scientist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, also published by the University of Chicago Press.