Book Excerpt
The Ghost with Trembling Wings : Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species
by Scott Weidensaul

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An excerpt from The Ghost with Trembling Wings : Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species by Scott Weidensaul, published 2002 by North Point Press.
Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2002 Scott Weidensaul


Book Excerpt --

The overnight rain had stopped, leaving the forest heavy with moisture and the trail slick with mud. I moved down the path in the dim green predawn light, beneath palms and tall mahogany trees hung with vines, keeping half an eye on the ground -- mindful that a snake, one of the big, venomous fer-de-lances that blend so well with fallen leaves, might be returning late from a night of hunting.

The air was overflowing with bird songs, only a few of which I recognized; the clear, piercing whistles of rufous-throated solitaires, and the buzzy, hurry-up-and-wait melody of the tiny bananaquits, which flitted ahead of me like yellow insects. The path wound its way down into ravines, across small, clear jungle streams, and back up again, and wrapped around the base of sodden cliffs covered with ferns, from which choruses of tree frogs still called, unwilling to relinquish the night.

After an hour of hiking, I rounded a bend and the forest fell away suddenly into a deep gash. I could finally see what I'd already known -- that I was high on the side of a steep mountain, overlooking narrow valleys enclosed by craggy, tree-covered hills, their summits made indistinct by ragged gray clouds that whipped across them on the strong breeze.

St. Lucia lies midway down the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, where the chain crooks like a bent finger toward Venezuela, 400 miles to the south. It is a volcanic island, heavily mountainous and covered in forest -- the very picture of a tropical paradise, known through history as "the Helen of the Caribbean" for its natural beauty. Tourist resorts rim the coasts, while the interior is largely protected in a series of government forest reserves; unlike many of its neighbors in the Caribbean, St. Lucia has maintained much of its native habitat, making it an emerging mecca for ecotourism.

The northeast trade winds, which blow almost constantly through the winter dry season, wicked the sweat from me as I settled down at the edge of the overlook for a rest, unslinging my binoculars. In 1994, when a hurricane swept the region, torrential rains loosened the soil, producing catastrophic landslides across the island. The damage was far less in the forest reserves, where the thick jungle held the soil in place better than farmland or scrub did, but this hillside had nevertheless torn loose, entombing hundred-foot-tall trees in a slurry of heavy mud that roared into the valley below. Now, years later, the dizzyingly steep wall of the old slide zone was covered with fresh green growth, edged by a few old canopy trees that somehow escaped the carnage and stood lonely and tall.

A pair of large parrots, growling and squawking like preschoolers, flew out of the mist and down into the valley, blue and yellow flashing on their wings before they were swallowed by the trees. A broad-winged hawk wheeled overhead, giving a high, thin scream, then landed near the top of one of the tall trees and began to meticulously preen its feathers.

Sometimes, in the forest, it pays to play a hunch. I don't know why, but as I watched the hawk, I froze, binoculars halfway to my eyes, then very slowly turned my head to look behind me. An agouti was emerging from the dark tunnel of the trail. It is hard to describe an agouti; to call it a rodent, however biologically accurate that may be, conveys an entirely inaccurate impression, for there was nothing at all furtive or slinky about it. It weighed about 10 pounds and was the size of a fox, and looked like a cross between a sleek guinea pig and a deer -- slender legs, a solid, squared-off body with no visible tail, and large, dark eyes. It stopped and looked around, its Roman nose twitching, the low sun casting a green iridescence over its glossy brown fur.

I had seen agoutis before in the rain forests of Central and South America, but only as indistinct shapes hurtling across the trail in the twilight or scuffling in the dark just beyond my flashlight beam. The head had a rabbitish look despite the small ears, and the hair around the rump was coarser and longer than the fine pelt on its neck and shoulders; when an agouti is alarmed, it flares this corona of bristles like a grass skirt.

The agouti padded forward on its small pink feet until it was within a foot of the pack lying by my side. Only then did it seem to notice me, staring up with those luminous eyes. It did a graceful pirouette of a hop, stopping to look back as if in disbelief. It flared its rump hair, skittered a few more yards, and stopped once more to peer at me. Then it finally seemed to resolve things in its own mind, and trotted off with dignified deliberation.

The enchantment broke, and I turned back to stare at the valleys and mountains spread below me, gauging my next move. I wasn't in the Caribbean to commune with rodents -- I was there to solve a mystery. Somewhere down in that intensely green, intensely vertical landscape, a lost soul had been hiding for more than half a century. I was trying to find it.

Biologists estimate there are between 10 and 30 million species of living things on our planet, only a fraction of which have been described and catalogued. New species come to light every day, from obscure beetles to unknown birds and even a few large mammals. The two centers of this biological diversity are tropical ecosystems, which support almost incomprehensible numbers of plants and animals, and islands, which by their isolation promote the rapid evolution of unique life forms. Tropical islands, like those of the Caribbean, are thus doubly blessed by nature.

Prior to European discovery, virtually every island in the Antilles held species that were found nowhere else in the world -- endemics, as they are known. Hispaniola had to itself three species of shrew, two kinds of ground sloth (one of which weighed 150 pounds), seven species of chunky rodents called hutias, a squirrel-sized insectivore with a rat-like tail and an impossibly long, pointy snout known as a solenodon, as well as more than two dozen unique birds. Jamaica had roughly thirty endemic bird species, as well as a hutia, five endemic snakes, a unique tree frog, two species of endemic bats, an iguana, and several smaller lizards called galliwasps. Cuba, the biggest island in the Caribbean basin, had the greatest diversity of life, including half a dozen sloths, a 400-pounder among them, and more than two dozen endemic birds, one of which, the bee hummingbird, is, at a shade over 2 inches long, the world's smallest bird. (Cuba's natural wealth is a textbook example of the principles of biogeography, a main rule of which is that the larger an island, or the closer it lies to the mainland, the greater the diversity of life it will support. But the Antilles also showcase a corollary: The farther from the mainland an island is, the more uniquely evolved its flora and fauna tend to be.)

Unfortunately, island species tend to be a bit less adaptable than their mainland counterparts, especially when confronted with new predators, and because of their limited range and population size, they are all the more susceptible to extinction. At the end of the last ice age, the West Indies were populated with an assortment of animals that would appear bizarre to modern eyes: giant ground sloths; rodents the size of small bears; several species of flightless owls on Cuba that were 3 feet tall, with long, heronlike legs for running down their prey; and a condor rivaling today's Andean condor in size. Many of these became extinct after the end of the ice age, 10,000 years ago, an extinction wave that intensified after Amerindians settled the islands, starting between 7,000 and 4,500 years ago. Paleontologists call these "first-contact extinctions," on the assumption that human hunting drove the losses. (But if humans took away, they also gave: agoutis like the one I saw were not native to the Caribbean but were apparently brought from South America by natives as a food supply.)

The large, the flightless, the tasty, and the unwary winked out on island after island, a trend that repeated itself with smaller and fleeter species when Europeans began to colonize the region in the sixteenth century. For instance, at least fifteen or sixteen species of parrots, including eight species of large macaws, became extinct after 1600, most of them now known only from notations in the logbooks of early explorers, who found them as palatable in the pot as they were colorful in the air. One species, from St. Croix, is known from only a single bone.

The Ghost with Trembling Wings : Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species by Scott Weidensaul,

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Link to our book review.