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Book review: "Lost Animals- Extinction and the photographic record"

Thanks to my lovely editor at Bloomsbury, Jim Martin (now heading up their very exciting new popular science imprint, Sigma), I was sent a copy of a book to review late last year which looked fascinating. Obviously, to declare my interests, Bloomsbury are also publishing my own book, Dawn Chorus in Eden, but my review is from the point of view of someonw with a background in working on an extinct ancient human species.
The volume in question is Lost Animals- Extinction and the photographic record, by Errol Fuller. Read on to see what I thought!

Lost Animals
Image from here
My first impression of the book was that it's fairly substantial, and very nicely produced. It's a good size, hardback, but not too big, and the quality of the cover and paper inside is excellent, as are the photographs (taking into account some of the originals' poor quality).

Some of the species included may already be familiar to readers as extinction "celebrities"- i.e. the Quagga, Thylacine and Passenger Pigeon. It is quite satisfying therefore to find that thanks to Fuller's inclusion of multiple photographs for each species, there is still something fresh to experience. For example, images of the Passenger Pigeons in C.O. Whitman's aviaries confirm them to have been extremely stream-lined, graceful birds, with extraordinarily long tails; something not clearly visible in other better known photographs.
Additionally, some of the images of Thylacines are striking- although it's easy to see how elongated their bodies are in many images elsewhere, the photograph on page 172 of an animal being fed through a fence, standing on its hind legs, really demonstrates this bodily proportion, and gives a clear view of their size in relation to a human. And something else I'd not seen before is the impression of Thylacines as attentive, social animals, clearly communicated by the image on page 174 of a female and her three young cubs, all facing the photographer with glistening eyes.

It's hard not to be moved by that photograph, seeing the alert, "aliveness" of a species that's been lost, especially as it's due to human actions. This is true of many other entries, such as the engaging series of photos of a juvenile Ivory Billed Woodpecker scrambling over the arms, back and head of a person in the 1930s, oblivious to its coming fate. It's easy to mourn the loss of such a characterful creature, but there is still something tragic in many of the images of less immediately striking species. The New Zealand Bush Wren is adorable due to its tiny size, but additionally being pictured in various poses in its natural habitat, you get a sense of its vitality, nipping about busily, and it's hard to think this no longer exists. Two photos of the Hawaiian Kaua 'i 'O'o (a type of honeyeater) seem to really connect with the viewer in another way, throwing its accusing yellow eye on us.

In fact, despite the cover and inside face photographs showing mammals, the vast majority of species in the book are birds. Fuller notes in the introduction that some extinct mammals lack any known photographs, and that birds are often better recorded. It's a shame however that no other members of the animal kingdom are included; amphibians come to mind firstly, as well as fish and invertebrates. Possibly this exclusion may have been because the size of the book would become unfeasible large, or perhaps photographs were unavailable.

In terms of other criticisms, personally I would have liked the historical paintings and drawings of species to be included alongside the main chapters, rather than in a separate section at the end of the book. Fuller explains in the introduction that such images are not included for all the species covered, as in many cases the photos are of decent quality, but where they are, it is to assist the reader trying to imagine the living creature. It seems strange then to close them off into an appendix, dislocated from the accounts themselves.

I would also have welcomed, where available, a little more detail on the biology and lives of the creatures covered, as well as deeper discussion about the extinction process itself. It's not a matter of space, as the font is really large. For example, where Fuller speculates in their respective chapters that Passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets might have faced a unique extinction risk because they were adapted to live in vast numbers, I would have liked just a few sentences perhaps drawing parallels with extant species who occupy similar niches- is there a particular social structure or breeding strategy that made them vulnerable for example, seen elsewhere in species that live in such dense groups?
Admittedly some species appear to have had virtually no information known about them before disappearing, but in other accounts Fuller describes the dedication of human individuals who committed their lives to saving species, and in these situations, some more information about these now-lost creatures must have been available. Sometimes it feels like tracing the history of the taking of the last images, as well as speculation as to whether the animals could still exist, is given too much precedence.

However, overall this is still a very engaging book, beautifully produced and full of interesting information for anyone into the natural world. The dreadfully similar process of extinction across many of the accounts is clear- human habitat destruction as well as targeted persecution. Yet some hope remains that, given the early chronology involved in many of the accounts (late 19th- mid 20th century), our later recognition of the destruction we had begun to wreak on the natural world has led to current 'big picture' conservation efforts, attempting to prevent many more species being reduced to a few photographic scraps of memory.


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