A Parrot Without A Name: The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth
The insect people have it best. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of species are discovered and described each year. Some authorities believe that 90 percent of insect species have yet to be identified. One entomologist I talked to, Dr. Terry Erwin at the Smithsonian, whose specialty is a group of ground beetles (genus Agra) that live high in the rainforest canopy of equatorial South America, informed me that over two thousand species of this one highly specialized genus of beetle exist.
“Jaguars of the canopy,” he said. “Eat anything. Hard to get at. Got to climb the trees to get the fogging devices up there to knock them out. Out of one tree on our last trip eighteen different species tumbled down, fifteen of them never collected before.”
“What was your reaction?” I asked. “Elation or woe?”
“Oh, elation!” the he replied. “Cheers. Scientists jumping up and down. Shouts of ‘Oh God!’ Why woe?”
“Well, I’d be discouraged to think how many more undiscovered beetles were up there.”
“Not at all,” I was assured. “To think that you’re holding a beetle in your hand absolutely new to science,…that’s cause for celebration.”
The amphibian/reptile scientists do reasonably well, too. Their discoveries move along at a comparatively brisk rate, over a hundred a year, most of them in Southeast Asia where scientific efforts have lagged over the years. New species of turtles in particular are turning up, though the most impressive discovery of the last decade in herpetology is surely that of the Angola python (Python anchietae), smaller and differently patterned than its cousin, the African Rock python.
The mammal field with its relatively small number of four-thousand-odd species has more movement than one might expect—particularly among the smaller animals, such as shrews, voles, marsupial mice, and so on. Hundreds of specimens lie in collecting trays awaiting identification. This year two interesting new mammals have turned up—a lemur from Madagascar, and a tamarin, which is a South American marmoset with silky fur and a long tail. The last relatively large mammal identified in the United States was a marsh rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris hefneris.1 Discovered in the Florida Keys and described in 1984, it is known as the Keys Rabbit. At the time, a somewhat controversial auction was held to name the rabbit after the highest bidder—who turned out to be Hugh Hefner, the publisher whose empire’s logo is, of course, a porthole-eyed rabbit with a black bow tie. The publisher paid $42,000 for the privilege to an organization with a highfalutin name, The Center for Action on Endangered Species, which then immediately closed up shop, the organizers absconding with the funds. Lately, the rabbit has been in the news again. Its habitat in the Keys has been threatened by human encroachment, and it (along with the Keys Deer) is now in serious trouble.
Fish. In recent years nothing as astonishing as the living fossils, the coelacanths, pulled out of the sea off Madagascar, has turned up, but new species are being discovered…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.