Sunday, December 16, 2012

Book Review: Encyclopedia of New and Rediscovered Animals

The Encyclopedia of New and Rediscovered Animals

By Karl P.N. Shuker

Coachwhip Publications, 2012

Building on two of Shuker’s earlier works, The Lost Ark and The New Zoo, the Encyclopedia deserves its title. This is a mammoth collection of scientific achievements from 1900 to the present. It’s information-packed, sumptuously illustrated, and just plain fun.

Shuker does not, of course, try to include all discoveries, since the beetles alone would merit a library. He goes for creatures which are relatively large or scientifically important, and those are more than sufficient to fill this large-format 368-page book. Shuker is a highly knowledgeable writer (as you’d expect from a Ph.D. who’s been poking into the odd corners of zoology for four decades). He discusses both species and important subspecies (including those where there is some dispute about taxonomy: it’s not clear whether Rothschild’s giraffe is a subspecies, species, or just a local variation.) The zoologically inclined reader will enjoy every page of this romp through monk seals, giant stick insects, megamouth sharks, monitor lizards, and other discoveries simply too numerous to mention.

One thing Shuker does not do is set all the material into a context by showing any species discovery curves or discussing just how many new vs. known species are being found. He does, though, amply demonstrate his main theme: that discovery didn’t end with the “golden age” of the 1800s – indeed, it’s continued at a steady and often surprising pace right up to the present day.

Being a Shuker work, this book has plenty of mysteries along with the definite discoveries. Some are well-known: some, like a slow loris with a thick bushy tail, not yet recognized although it’s been held in captivity and photographed, surprised even a well-read aficionado like myself. Likewise, some of the stories of discovery, like the coelacanth’s, have been told many times (though Shuker always tells them well), but how many know the tragic tale behind the discovery of Flecker’s sea wasp jellyfish, or how Rudie Kuiter saw a flounder swimming along and discovered it was the most amazing mimic in nature: an octopus pretending to be a flounder?

Shuker also includes stories of animals which didn’t quite live up to their hype as new species, like Mexico’s onza (not a new species of big cat, just an odd puma.) He closes with a few words on possible future discoveries, a note on taxonomy, and a bibliography running 33 pages.

There are hundreds of images here to go with the text, ranging from photos to Bill Rebsamen’s wonderful color illustrations.

This is one of the classic books, not just of cryptozoology but of modern zoology and conservation biology. Readers will love it enough to revisit it many times. It’s a great achievement.

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