Blencowe, Michael (2021: Leaping Hare Press, 192pp.)
What remains of a species after it has gone extinct? In this moving book, Blencowe introduces us to 11 extinct species. He offers a history of how each one became extinct and travels to see for himself what remains have been preserved. Most memorably, he goes to a Danish museum to look in the eyes – just the eyes, preserved in a jar – of the last two Great Auks ever to live. (Their hearts are there, too, but the skins went to other museums.) In another museum (there’s a list and map in the backmatter), Blencowe looks at the head and foot that comprise the only soft tissue remains of the dodo.
Most of the extinctions are famous ones, like the dodo and Steller’s sea cow, but at the end he adds Ivell’s sea anemone, an almost-transparent invertebrate only 20mm long. It lived on one English lagoon, where Blencowe searched for it on a child’s inflatable alligator. (Field work is not always dignified.)
Blencowe spares no words in describing exactly what humans did to make each species vanish. Sometimes it was development (California’s Xerxes blue butterfly, killed off when the plant necessary to its diet was bulldozed), sometimes thoughtless overhunting (surely no sailor harpooning a sea cow thought they were limitless, but he faced hunger right now), and sometimes just not caring (releasing goats on Pinta Island – handy for visiting sailors but death to the island’s tortoises.
Some of these cases are understandable because of the eras in which they happened, but understanding why sailors valued a permanent food supply over tortoises doesn’t make Blencowe’s visit to Lonesome George’s grave any less poignant.
Blencowe drives home, not in speeches but in with poignant words, that every one of these species is a warning because they didn’t have to be extinct, and the ruins of their once-vibrant bodies should remind us we can allow no more. Get the hardcover edition for more wonderful illustrations by Jade They.