The Lost Species is a series of fascinating and unusual adventures in biological discovery. These take place not in mysterious far-flung locales, but in the dusty jars and drawers of the world’s natural history collections. The world’s museums house vast numbers of preserved biological specimens (over one billion specimens in the United States alone), of which only a tiny fraction – usually less than 5% – are on display to the public. This unseen majority, however, provides a vast “mine of information” where observant researchers can constantly “stumble upon new things.” (These discoveries are ongoing – readers may remember 2020 news reports of a “saber-toothed anchovy” found in a fossil that had been in the University of Michigan collection for over 40 years.) It turns out that museum collections are gold mines of new species waiting to be discovered, sitting on shelves or in jars for 50, 100, even 150 years without recognition. One researcher is quoted as saying, “I guarantee you there are hundreds if not thousands of yet-to-be-recognized species essentially hidden in our collections…. [T]hey’re just chock full of undescribed species.”
Each chapter of The Lost Species focuses on a single biological group. Biologists scour the world’s collections making new species discoveries: land snails, a marine roly-poly, pygmy salamanders, bandicoots, African squeaker frogs, cichlids fish, and saki monkeys are all foci of individual scientists’ intense scrutiny. Each short chapter gives a snapshot of a species, a scientist, a taxonomic puzzle, and how that species furthers understanding of biology and biological processes as a whole. Although many of the specimens are small, old, hidden, or forgotten, their discovery adds to our understanding of bigger-picture topics. Ecosystems and ecological preservation, biodiversity hot spots and microhabitats, keystone species, introduced species and biological control, biomimicry, and evolution and adaptive radiation are all key to the description of each species.
The Lost Species is not just about the specimens, however. Contemporary and past researchers, as well as the history and culture of the times in which they work, are central to each chapter. The progress of scientific approach and technology is evident. Revisiting specimens collected decades ago allows scientists to employ techniques such as CT scans and DNA sequencing that were unavailable to the original collectors. Science appears in action, both as dogged persistence (biologists visiting dozens of museums around the world in pursuit of individual specimen samples) and as serendipity (the discovery of two halves of a tiny beetle stored separately for almost a century, which, finally untied, allowed for description of a new species). Biological chance is evident, as species become extinct in the wild, existing only as preserved specimens in the depths of museums – having a “second life as a representative.” Even the museums are threatened, and as collections become deactivated or closed through lack of funding, collections become inaccessible for further research.
Although stemming from musty shelves and aging specimens, this is far from a dusty read. Indeed, any teacher or student interested in biology, ecology, evolution, and the history and process of science will find adventure and discovery in the pages of The Lost Species.