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The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species [Hardcover]

Scott Weidensaul

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc; 1 edition (1 Dec 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374246645
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374246648
  • Product Dimensions: 23.5 x 16 x 2.9 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 863,519 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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A round-the-world detective story about rediscovering vanished species. - 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 haemorrhage of thirty thousand irreplaceable life-forms each year. And yet, every so often one of these lost species re-surfaces, such as the Indian Forest Owlet, considered extinct for more than a century when it was rediscovered in 1997. 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, wolf-like 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.

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The overnight rain had stopped, leaving the forest heavy with moisture and the trail slick with mud. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Contagiously thrilling hunts 17 Jun 2002
By Eileen Galen - Published on Amazon.com
Scott Weidensaul says early in this careful and remarkable book that he has "an untrained eye," but of course he's being much too humble. Weidensaul, an accomplished naturalist who seems also totally comfortable with people, traveled the globe for this book and he writes that the search for lost species is "a good deal more subtle than I'd originally realized." He calls the process of rediscovery "the many ways in which the lost come back from the grave," and explains that what at first may seem like the business of biology and science is in fact "enmeshed with human psychology, deep-seated desires, and the ways, accurate or imagined, in which we view our world." Later in his narrative he confesses that if he had one crack at a working time machine, he would without a doubt set it for "about twenty thousand years in the past." The last Ice Age would have had a terrific reporter in Weidensaul.
There is a variety of famous and not so famous little-known and in some cases "extinct" creatures (Bachman's Warbler on the island of St. Lucia, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Australian night parrot, the golden toad, and more) to be written about. Weidensaul delves into theories of hybridization, cloning, and numerous current issues in nature and science. As to the discovery of obscure or assumed-vanished species, he writes that finding an unknown plant or animal is not difficult since "the roughly one million species that scientists have named and catalogued may represent only a tenth to a thirtieth of the planet's total biota." For example, never-before catalogued species of birds emerge from the famously shrinking tropics at the rate of one or two per year.
His stories combine reportage and layman's science with historical narrative. The writing, sometimes about complicated matters, is delightfully clear; you would be thrilled to find it in a good magazine that publishes high-quality nonfiction pieces of some length. He explains some of the bravery, hunches, and wonderfully educated guesswork, along with incredible heroism and pluck, that the scientific and naturalist communities have shown in the search for "lost" species. The author is present, but never the center of attention. He's a naturalist and a reporter; his stories are bracing and exciting. Weidensaul's grasp of issues in nature, science, the mysteries of lost species and the people who fight to find them is firm. There are notes, a bibliography, and 15-page index.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing, addictive book about species survival 30 Sep 2002
By Debbie Lee Wesselmann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Scott Weidensaul has written a fascinating, page-turning exploration of the complexities of species survival and extinction. From the first chapter, a narrative account of his personal search for the probably extinct Semper's Warbler on St. Lucia, to the last chapter where he may, or may not, have found the never before seen female cone-billed tanager, this book never let go of my imagination. Most of the sought-after species in this book are never found, but a few, such as the coelacanth and the almost-aurochs, are. The author looks for big cats rumored to be living in the English countryside, and tells of the accidental rediscovery of the Australian night parrot. He provides one of the few intelligent treatises on the Loch Ness Monster and other cryptobiological "species." Even though most possibly extinct animals are never found, it's the hunt for them that excites both the author and the reader. The often suspenseful narrative is peppered with history and sharp observations as well as varied opinions. The language is rich with visual and engaging details, the kind that makes you feel as though you've entered into the "land of the lost." Trust me, you won't fall asleep reading this book. This is lay science as it should be, full of mysteries and questions, both accessible and intelligent. The author's good humor and pithy insights lend a friendly tone to his science. For example, when he is fighting insects - in his ears, eyes, and under his watch band - during a frantic search for a specific flock of birds, he writes, "There is a reason lost species are lost in the first place. Sometimes the reasons are weighty and formidable, like civil unrest, impenetrable mountains, or bandit warlords who use visitors for target practice. Sometimes they are more prosaic, like bad roads and worse information. And sometimes the reason is sweat bees - too many sweat bees." This witty, conversational tone makes The Ghost With Trembling Wings as fun to read as it is instructional.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with even the slightest interest in conservation, evolution, field biology, and environmentalism; however, you don't need to know a thing about the preceding fields to enjoy The Ghost With Trembling Wings. All you need is a healthy curiosity and the time to indulge it.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Becoming Unextinct 11 Dec 2002
By doomsdayer520 - Published on Amazon.com
This is a very unique book about mankind's relationship with endangered and extinct species, from both a naturalist and ethical perspective. As more and more species become extinct through the actions of humans, sightings of supposedly extinct creatures remain common. Is this because those animals really aren't extinct, with small populations still surviving in remote locations; or is it just wishful thinking? Weidensaul finds some of both in this book. Some regions of the world are still so remote that they are yielding new species (even some large mammals like in Southeast Asia) and revealing survivors of animals that were thought to be extinct. On the other hand, people may think they see romantic and mythical creatures out of subconscious longing for a world that is still mysterious and dangerous, and maybe even evolutionary guilt for destroying species forever. A related issue to that subconscious longing is the creatures of cyrptozoology, which explains the never-ending reports of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Weidensaul dwells both on the ethical issues behind such wishful thinking, and also on the real science of bringing species back from the brink. He examines the ethics of using genetic engineering and cloning to save endangered species - and recreating extinct species, a new craze of questionable value. Weidensaul also takes us on entertaining searches for supposedly extinct creatures that have a reasonable chance of still existing, like the cone-billed tanager in Brazil or the strange thylacine in Tasmania. The only problem here is Weidensaul's lack of closure on many of the ethical issues that he raises, but this book is still a rewarding look into mankind's always complicated relationship with nature.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Read! 7 May 2005
By reader - Published on Amazon.com
A superb book. Fascinating, extermely well written and difficult to put down. Weidensaul renders his vast curiosity, observation,and love of nature contagious.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating narrative 29 July 2002
By Harold McFarland - Published on Amazon.com
Weidensaul's book is at once a narrative of his searches for lost species and an educational piece on science, genetics, environmental impact and a dozen other areas that affect the habitat and adaptability of various animal species. "The Ghost with Trembling Wings" examines all the possible scenarios when dealing with lost species. There are ample examples of a species declared extinct but suddenly one is captured, found, or sometimes a dead one found (as was the case of the Australian night parrot thought extinct for many years until one was found as roadkill). He also covers sightings of unknown creatures (Bigfoot, Loch Ness) as well as sightings of creatures whose very existence seems to depend more on the desire of the observer to see them than on anything else. All aspects of this area of research are covered including current directions in cloning, captive breeding, disease, and even the effect of the political climate.
Travel with Weidensaul as he goes to the most remote areas of the earth in search of lost species and provides an inside look into this field as well as those who would dedicate their lives to resurrecting the dead and lost. An fascinating book that anyone interested in the area of finding living specimens of "extinct" species would be sure to enjoy.
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