February 4, 2014 8:07:05 AM
I have no evidence that Errol Fuller is an embittered man, but if he were, he'd have reason to be. He is an expert on animal extinction, and has written good-looking volumes on bird extinction in general and on the dodo and on the great auk specifically. He'd lots rather have the birds back than have these accomplished books to his credit, I am sure. He noticed that when people looked at his previous books, they paid especial attention to the photographs of animals that are now extinct. The photographs meant an immediacy that paintings and prints could not convey, even if the photos were sepia-toned from the early days of photography in the nineteenth century. Thus Fuller has brought us Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record (Princeton University Press), a review of the lost birds and mammals for which we have photographs. Some of the photos here are so recent that they are in color, indicating a relatively immediate loss. Even the recent ones are not always of the best photographic quality, and the old ones had all the liabilities coming from cumbersome equipment and relatively insensitive film. Usually the photographers had no idea that they were producing something like a last image of an animal that soon no one would see again. Even the indistinct images here, though, are evocative; if they weren't among the last visions of these species, we probably would not pay so much attention to them. But here they are, scores of images, sometimes of low quality, reproduced in a large-format book, along with as much as can be known about how they happened to be taken, and with short histories of the demise of the depicted species.
Many times the reason for the animal's extinction is not known. The Pink-headed Duck, for instance, was not hunted within its home grounds in India, and by the time it had left in the 1920s, there was still unspoiled country wherein it could have thrived. The population crashed, though, and we will never know why. There were some captive flocks, but they did not breed, perhaps because they were kept with other waterbirds; again, we will never know. The animal was a curiosity; pink does not show up often in the plumage of birds, and the photos show a straight-necked posture and a peculiar shape of the head. They do not, however, show any pink because colored photos were not taken of the birds themselves; some people have tried to recapture the distinctive look of the pink head by coloring the photos retroactively. A watercolor of the duck, with intact coloring, is included within the appendix that shows non-photographic images of the animals of the preceding chapters whose photos do not do them justice.
The causes of the respective demises of other animals here are well known. The diminishing populations of the 'O'U, a honeycreeper found in Hawaii, were eventually wiped out by mosquitoes carrying avian malaria, lava from Mauna Loa, and a hurricane in 1988. Life is tough, especially on islands, and some of the species here are gone just because of natural causes. Most, however, suffered by how humans interacted with them. The Passenger Pigeon is here, of course, and its precipitous decline from a population of billions is certainly due to the ease with which it was hunted. Fuller points out, however, that once the huge flocks were reduced, the Passenger Pigeon would have been no easier to wipe out by hunting than any other bird; we don't know exactly why there was a quick decline to zero population, but probably the bird had evolved in such a way that it could only survive in the vast flocks described memorably by so many settlers. Starving soldiers on tiny Wake Island wiped out the Wake Island Rail that could barely fly; when US forces recovered the island in 1945, there were no Rails left.
Hunting represents a direct human reduction of animal population, but humans change the environment wherever they go, and (again, especially on islands) some species cannot adapt to the changes. Sometimes the losses are due to deliberate changes. The tiny Hawaiian island of Laysan was home to the Laysan Rail, until someone had the atrocious scheme to make money by introducing rabbits and guinea pigs to the island to be raw materials for a proposed meat cannery. The Atitlan Giant Grebe's demise is a story of earthquake, war, murder, and more, but there was also a desire to make its home lake a fisherman's paradise, only there weren't any game fish. The Large-mouthed Bass was introduced, and ate the crabs and fish that were the Grebe's natural prey, and also the chicks themselves. Honeybees introduced to the Americas by European settlers made hives in hollow trees so that Carolina Parakeets could not use them for roosts and nests. Dingoes were brought to Australia by Aborigines, and eventually eliminated the dog-like Thylacine. (Then, Fuller points out, humans from elsewhere wiped out the Aboriginal Tasmanians.) Ships have rats, and rats go after eggs, and so went the New Zealand Bush Wren (and countless other island species which rats have finished off). Somehow the Brown Tree Snake was introduced to Guam, probably hitchhiking on American naval vessels after WWII, and took away the Guam Flycatchers.
There are losses due to habitat destruction by humans, of course, and more to come if we are warming up our planet. It's all sad, and part of the sadness comes from the photos that indicate not only what we have already lost, but what knowledge we can never recover. The Laughing Owl, for instance, is gone from New Zealand, and we will never know: did it actually laugh? Some observers said it did, and others said it did not laugh but shrieked; we have these old photos here, but no old recordings, so the sound is gone forever, and we will never know. Repeatedly Fuller explains that we cannot be absolutely certain some of the species here are gone; there was the 2004 sighting of an Ivory Billed Woodpecker, for instance (but he explains the many reasons why that sighting was probably erroneous). Cryptozoologists might report a sighting of a Thylacine now and then, but it will take more than such sightings to be real evidence against the animal's extinction. The lost Quaggas and Heath Hens might be reintroduced by breeding because they are not actual independent species, but races of species that are still in existence. The others here, well, it would be some sort of miracle if they were not all gone. Years ago the BBC had a series "Last Chance to See" about endangered animals. Here, though, are the last recorded chances of seeing animals not just endangered, but gone forever. It is a beautiful book; the species deserve to be remembered this way, but they didn't deserve destruction.
5. A Stone's Throw: The veil COLUMNS