Finding New Species

Finding New Species

Pop wildlife quiz: How many of the estimated 50 million species that share the planet with us have we positively identified: almost all, more than half, or less than five percent? Remarkably, the last is correct.

Naturalists have documented nearly two million distinct life forms, from whales and great apes to the 800 varieties of bacteria that call our respective colons home sweet home. In “The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth,” natural history writer and Old Lyme resident Richard Conniff chronicles the people, including Charles Darwin, James J. Audubon and Thomas Jefferson, whose passion burned to find new species, often regardless of the cost to family, finances or health.

Not a few of these freelancer researchers — often eccentric, largely self-taught, and frequently ultra competitive — died attempting to be the first to identify a creature hitherto unknown to humankind. In his ninth book, Conniff brings this motley crew of flora and fauna fanatics to life, placing them in the social and intellectual context of their times and detailing the extraordinary sacrifices they made for the advancement of human knowledge.

The quest for species, which began in earnest in the mid-eighteenth century, involved more than pure science. What was discovered had a profound effect on religion, social attitudes and even national pride. For example, the Frenchman Count Buffon concocted a “theory of American degeneracy,” proffering that the cold, wet climate of this continent caused its animals and human inhabitants to grow smaller and less hardy.

Thomas Jefferson took that personally, and one of the things he wanted Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to be looking for on their trek across the continent (1804-’06) was the massive beast of Indian legend, the mastodon, whose bones had already been unearthed by east coast farmers. Jefferson believed the giant creatures still roamed the West – and wouldn’t that just show Monsieur Buffon whose milieu was degenerating.

Despite his annoying theory, the Frenchman was on the right track, one that would lead eventually to Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” in 1859: animals and people were affected by and adapted to their environment. That’s the reason there is such an incomprehensible variety of life on earth.

But not everyone was ready for the concept. Americans then (and more than a few now) believed God made the world a few thousand years ago and all the creatures in it just as they appeared in modern times. Why would the Supreme Being have made creatures that needed to evolve, or heaven forbid, that went extinct, as the strange bones being found underground suggested?

And what was up with the Gorilla, which first came to the attention of the western world in 1847 thanks to a Connecticut man? Why would God create such a clear parody of his favorite species, homo sapiens?

Q. Why do we feel compelled to identify every little creepy, crawly thing that lives under a rock?

A. Things we tend to dismiss as trivial or junk species often turn out to be critical to our survival. The Yew Tree, for example, was considered useless except as an ornamental, and then a few years ago they discovered they could take from it this substance called taxol that is extremely valuable for the treatment of cancer of the breast and the prostate and other cancers. Thousands of people’s lives now depend on it, and it’s become a 1.6 billion-a-year business.

Q. You travel the world to exotic habitats as part of your work. Do you keep a list of the species you have spied?
A. I don’t keep lists, I’m not that organized.

Q. What the strangest varmint you’ve encountered?
A. You mean besides human beings? Probably Hagfish off the coast of Maine. They are also known as slim eels, and as their name suggests they are capable of producing enormous quantities of goo. They live by burrowing into the bodies of dead fish and whatever else falls to the bottom of the sea. They get inside and hollow the animal out so all you have is this skin with wriggling eels inside. They’re gross and disgusting, but here again there was a period in the 1980s when there was a booming industry in Hagfish leather. You can eat them, too.

Q. You write that we are in a new age of discovery when a remarkable number of previously unknown species (to scientists anyway) are being found and classified. Some examples – like new primates – rise to the level of “Yikes, how did we miss this hairy relative?” Why are we finding them now?

A. We are finding them now because we have new roads going to places we could never get to before. We have satellites showing us areas that haven’t been studied. There are a lot of different new technologies involved. Also, deforestation has moved the boundaries of civilization deeper and deeper into what used to be wilderness. A lot of these species are being discovered and going extinct pretty mush at the same time.

Q. The early naturalists were largely self-taught amateurs. Is there still a place for them in the modern hunt for new species?
A. Yea, probably more of a place than there used to be. There is this movement now to democratize the identification and description of species. There is a citizen science movement that encourages people to go out and survey the wildlife in the area where they live, to identify crickets by their call, for example. There are “bio-blitzes” that occur in places like Hartford where large groups of scientists and ordinary people work together to identify species. There’s a website called that assists people in doing their own identification using the web, so they can tell whether the things that they have found in their backyard are familiar or new to science.

Q. Can a growing population of humans and a relentlessly expanding world economy co-exist with all our fellow travelers on planet Earth?
A. Not unless we think a lot harder about it than we have so far. We can’t go on just wiping out huge chunks or forest and habitat and species without even stopping to think about what we’re losing. We’re doomed if we keep doing that.

Q. In parts of Europe and Asia migrating song birds are netted and snared to be eaten as culinary delicacies. That’s pretty depressing, isn’t it?
A. It is. We have a lot of dumb traditions.

Q. You live in Old Lyme. How are the species faring there?
A. I see lots of good stuff out my window all the time. I see interesting creatures doing interesting things, like Bluefish hitting the shore in the fall and chasing the Menhaden into the shallow water. That’s really exciting to me. I see hawks all the time, hitting prey and eating it. It’s still here. We just need to recognize it and take care of it.

Q. You probably notice things, see and hear birds and animals that people around you may not take in. Do you notice that?
A. Yes, I do. It’s exciting stuff out there. All I can say is that it is worth looking at. The other day I was going out to the compost heap and there was a spider that had made a huge web across the entry way, blocking my path. It was a beautiful yellow spider. I stopped and watched it for a while. I didn’t make it to the compost heap. If you think about what makes life worthwhile, to me it’s seeing this great stuff that’s not at the mall. It’s in your own backyard.

Q. The discovery of exotic species like platypus and the gorilla made humankind uncomfortable in many ways? Why was that?
A. The gorilla made humans uncomfortable because they were really struck by how closely it resembled human beings. They were much more struck by that in the mid-19th century than we are now. I should point out that the gorilla was discovered by a Connecticut guy, a missionary and physician named Thomas Savage from Middletown. He brought back a skull – he never saw it alive, but he did bring back pretty good descriptions of how it lived. He was a skillful interviewer of the local hunters. It was startling to people, and they began to see that we belonged among the primates. We were perhaps not as distinct as we had liked to think.

Q. Many scientists believe in God, if not the literal One of religious texts. Do you believe God created life on earth?

Q. I do. But to think that God spends his time deciding how beetles’ wings should fold and making all of the billions and billions of other decisions about how species should look and behave, is to reduce God to a pretty absurd functionary. It’s a much grander vision of God to suggest that he created the world as well as the rules and the laws by which it them evolved on its own.