Forgotten victims

A beautiful compendium of animals driven to extinction by man

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This large-format book, organized as a portrait gallery, is beautiful to look at but hard to take. Each of the hundred-odd birds and animals it displays is a victim of human enterprise, and will never be seen again.

Spread across two pages, for instance, is a fox-like creature curled up on a bed of moss and gazing back at the reader with reproachful yellow eyes. This is a Falkland Islands dog, first targeted by fur traders in 1839, and later finished off by poison bait set out by sheep ranchers. The last one was killed in 1876.

Or consider the candy-red Cuban macaw, perched on a wizened sea grape with its feathers ever so slightly ruffled. It was a fruit-eater and nested in palms. Twelve skins remain in museums.

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All species are mortal, biologists say. But the beauties portrayed here did not die natural deaths. Starting with the upland moa, a compact, ostrich-like bird that vanished from New Zealand's snowfields in about 1500, and continuing to the Atitlan grebe, a flightless diver native to a Guatemalan lake and last seen in 1989, all of the extinctions memorialized here are attributed to human activity.

Hence, these lovingly detailed colored drawings carry a burden of penance, and give "A Gap in Nature" a different flavor from, say, a picture book of whales or dinosaurs. Not a single photo is included; all the illustrations are necessarily based on museum specimens and documentary research. The originals by artist Peter Schouten are life-size and are part of a touring exhibition. The largest is over 25 feet long, and depicts the Steller's sea cow, a sort of manatee once common in the coastal North Pacific from Japan to California. These 10-ton grazers were driven offshore by prehistoric harpooners and routed out of existence by European sealers by 1770.

Each drawing is accompanied by a brief historical account by science writer Tim Flannery, summing up what is known about the species and the circumstances of its demise. In his introduction, "An Age of Extinction," he emphasizes what recent fossil research has made clear - that human-caused extinctions are not an artifact of modernity, but are as old as mankind, and can be correlated with our 50,000-year breakout from Africa to every habitable inch of the globe. The Polynesian invasion of the Pacific, for instance, which began about 1500 BC, tolled the bell for some 2,000 bird species, 20 percent of the worldwide total. Most were probably hunted to death and are known only from bones left in caves and middens.

One soon notices that a large portion of the recently departed were island-dwellers, evolved in isolation from big-league germs and predation. A lighthouse-keeper's cat, for instance, killed the world's last flightless songbirds, known as Stephens Island wrens. These mouse-like creatures scurried over a rocky islet off New Zealand until 1894. The peculiarities of island faunas, which confronted Darwin with his "mystery of mysteries - the first appearance of new beings on this earth," are much less available to naturalists today.

One leaves the book with an overwhelming impression of human carelessness, of a world shorn of its rarest and most marvelous inhabitants for no rhyme or reason. The authors predict the imminent extinction of the Chinese river dolphin, a sleek air-breather mistaken for a goddess for millennia along the Yangtze, but now reduced to a single individual. Is it foolish to ask what sort of ape would turn such tricks?

Perhaps wisely, the authors of "A Gap in Nature" leave any soul-searching to the reader. Their pictures tell the story.

Thomas Palmer is an environmentalist in Milton, Mass.

"A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World's Extinct Animals"

By Tim Flannery Illustrated by Peter Schouten

Atlantic Monthly Press

184 pp., $34.95

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