Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Gap in Nature


Our book today is A Gap in Nature, written by Tim Flannery and magnificently illustrated by Peter Schouten. It's an oversized hardcover full of text profiles and stunning paintings of 103 species of extinct animals, so until the author and artist team up again for an even longer, more comprehensive edition, this probably qualifies as the saddest single book ever mentioned on Stevereads. Because Schouten is so talented, your first impulse is to flip quickly through the book, soaking in one vibrant illustration after another - but doing that makes the whole thing even more crushingly sad, since the panoply here is as varied and evocative as any gallery of currently-living animals ... until you reach the end and realize all of these particular animals are gone. Schouten makes them all look so alive that the heartbreak may well be worse than a book full of photos would have been (there actually are photos of some of these 103, but nothing to match the colors and expressions Schouten uses).

Flanner is a favorite natural history writer of mine, and here he has an unremittingly grim task, describing in case after case just what is known of these vanished animals and when they disappeared. This book concentrates species who've disappeared in the last 500 years - there are no woolly mammoths or giant sloths in A Gap in Nature, although there are still some familiar faces.

There's the Steller Sea Cow, for instance, an enormous (30 feet long, 10 tons) relative of the manatee:


And there's the humble passenger pigeon, whose flocks once famously numbered in the millions, the rumbling whirring of which could be heard sometimes hours before the approaching flock itself was visible in the distance:


And of course the most famous vanished animal of them all, the great Mauritius dodo, immortalized not only by Lewis Carroll but by the great, underrated science fiction author Howard Waldrop, whose dodo short story "The Ugly Chickens" is well worth the effort for each and every one of you to hunt down and read (if memory serves, it was in volume 7 of Terry Carr's great anthology series "Universe" - and in a Waldrop collection too):



There are less familiar species here too, such as the Small Mauritian Flying-Fox, which disappeared a little over a century ago from the Mascarene islands. Flannery makes a good point in this profile and in many others, which is that it wasn't just the animal that disappeared, it was also the animal's function in the broader ecosystem. In the case of the Small Mauritian Flying-Fox, who knows how many plant species on the island had evolved in tandem with it, relied on it entirely for pollination? The bat's disappearance threatens all of those plants as well, in ways and to extents we'll never know now, because Pteropus subniger is gone:


And there's the tylacine from Australia, the largest modern-day marsupial predator, bigger than a coyote and highly sociable:


Flannery writes about the final days of the last captive tylacine:

The last thylacine to walk the earth was a female kept in Beaumaris Zoo near Hobart. Personnel problems developed at the zoo during 1935-36, which meant the animals were neglected during the winter. The thylacine was 'left exposed both night and day in the open, wire-topped cage, with no access to its sheltered den.' September brought extreme and unseasoned weather to Hobart. Night-time temperatures dropped to below zero at the beginning of the month, while a little later they soared above 38 degrees celsius. On the night of 7 September the stress became too much for the last thylacine and, unattended by her keepers, she closed her eyes on the world for the last time.
I keep saying these animals are 'gone,' that they 'disappeared,' when the reality is in every single case far more pointed, far more personal. Flannery is mild and objective about it:

This sixth age of extinction did not begin, as you might imagine, with the arrival of the industrial era a few hundred years ago. Instead it first dawned at least 50,000 years earlier, when our species first left its African cradle an began its spread across the face of the Earth, precipitating other living forms into oblivion by the dozen. We cannot be certain, of course, about anything that happened so long ago, but evidence is growing that a common thread runs through the extinctions of the last fifty milllennia, and that Homo sapiens, either directly or indirectly, is that thread.

That's very well-mannered, but it pulls punches that should be allowed to land squarely. 'By the dozen'? Try 'by the tens of thousands' (in the time it's taken you to read this posting, mankind has 'directly or indirectly' caused the extinction of half a dozen more species; in the last five years alone, Rwanda, for instance, as stripped itself bare of rainforest). 'Directly or indirectly' doesn't begin to cover the sheer intentional murderous frenzy with which humans systematically depopulated every ecosystem they entered. 20 percent of the megafauna of Africa, 40 percent of the megafauna of Europe and Asia, 80 percent of the megafauna of North and South America, a whopping 95 percent of the megafauna of Australia - all wiped out by one species, by modern humans, who also, incidentally, wiped out all the other species of humans who once lived on Earth. A Gap in Nature could just as easily be called A Gap Made in Nature, to remove all doubt that this might have happened accidentally.

The book was published in 2001 - the world had tens of thousands of square miles more forest, jungle, and swampland in 2001 than it has today. In those eight years, almost 60 percent of the planet's frogs species, for instance, have died off, and their former ecosystems have been correspondingly damaged, probably beyond the ability of tardy humans to fix. Burgeoning population and technological development in almost every country in the world puts almost every animal in the world under explicit threat - all except these. In an odd way, that's one of A Gap in Nature's unexpected little mercies: these 103 species, after negotiating the twists and turns of the world for innumerable generations, are at last past caring. Who knows how big a new version of this book will need to be in a few years.

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