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The tiny, lungless Thorius salamander from southern Mexico, thinner than a match and smaller than a quarter. The lushly white-coated Saki, an arboreal monkey from the Brazilian rainforests. The olinguito, a native of the Andes, which looks part mongoose, part teddy bear. These fantastic species are all new to science—at least newly named and identified; but they weren’t discovered in the wild, instead, they were unearthed in the drawers and cavernous basements of natural history museums. As Christopher Kemp reveals in The Lost Species, hiding in the cabinets and storage units of natural history museums is a treasure trove of discovery waiting to happen.
With Kemp as our guide, we go spelunking into museum basements, dig through specimen trays, and inspect the drawers and jars of collections, scientific detectives on the hunt for new species. We discover king crabs from 1906, unidentified tarantulas, mislabeled Himalayan landsnails, an unknown rove beetle originally collected by Darwin, and an overlooked squeaker frog, among other curiosities. In each case, these specimens sat quietly for decades—sometimes longer than a century—within the collections of museums, before sharp-eyed scientists understood they were new. Each year, scientists continue to encounter new species in museum collections—a stark reminder that we have named only a fraction of the world’s biodiversity. Sadly, some specimens have waited so long to be named that they are gone from the wild before they were identified, victims of climate change and habitat loss. As Kemp shows, these stories showcase the enduring importance of these very collections.
The Lost Species vividly tells these stories of discovery—from the latest information on each creature to the people who collected them and the scientists who finally realized what they had unearthed—and will inspire many a museumgoer to want to peek behind the closed doors and rummage through the archives.
About the Author
Christopher Kemp is a scientist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“An unexpectedly delightful and rewarding jaunt into once-cherished, now-decaying living history. Each chapter gives a quick sketch of a species or genus that was formally described from a museum specimen, often decades after it was collected. Most of the creatures—which include lightning cockroaches, squeaker frogs, pygmy bandicoots from New Guinea, ruby seadragons, and ‘atomic’ tarantulas caught at a nuclear test site in Nevada—have been identified in the past fifteen years or so.”
— Wall Street Journal
“At a time when funding for natural history collections is under siege, Kemp’s The Lost Species, which champions the irreplaceable value of these collections in the identification of new species, is a refreshing endorsement of both biodiversity and curatorial taxonomic expertise. . . . Kemp ably demonstrates the vital role that natural history collections and curators with taxonomic expertise play in the documentation of new species and ultimately in the preservation of biodiversity. These collections require maintenance to ensure the preservation of specimens and documentation for the next generation of taxonomists, who will discover more new species. It is my hope that The Lost Species will engender broader public interest and support for these efforts.”
— Bonnie Styles
“Natural history collections are vast, backlogged, error-riddled, or incompletely described. Think of all those expeditions in the 1800s and 1900s. Imagine drawers with thousands of beetles and flies, countless jars of marine invertebrates. What other treasures could those collections still be holding? Well, biologist Kemp wondered about that, too. And he went on a quest to uncover the forgotten collections and chronicled his findings in a book, The Last Species—new species that were only found with the help of natural history museums. . . . Amazing story.”
— Ira Flatow
“As Kemp showcases these inspiring discoveries, you’ll find yourself wondering what undiscovered treasures can be found in your local natural history museum. Clearly there is plenty of unknown biodiversity: currently, only 2 million species have been named out of the estimated 10 million that are thought to be out there (some credible estimates go as high as 30 million unnamed species), but I was amazed to learn that as many as half of all museum specimens are misidentified. Yeow! Clearly, there’s a lot of taxonomic and systematic work to be done. This engaging book is a compelling argument for the overall value of natural history museums, and for the importance of studying these collections.”
"As part of the rising concern for global biodiversity, Christopher Kemp makes clear the value of preserved specimens in basic research. He successfully presents their study as part science, part history, and part adventure."
— Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor, emeritus, Harvard University
“Natural history museums and their collections come alive with Kemp’s inside stories of new species formerly hidden away in museum drawers and jars. Anyone who appreciates discovery and has an interest in museums, history, and biodiversity will find plenty to enjoy in The Lost Species, an intriguing, engaging, and conversational read.”
— Marty Crump, author of Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adder’s Fork and Lizard’s Leg: The Lore and Mythology of Amphibians and Reptiles
“The natural history museums of the world are full of surprises—undescribed species, from flying foxes to king crabs—sitting on their shelves waiting for someone to notice. Kemp vividly brings to life the stories of these specimens, and the people who collect and describe them. The Lost Species will delight any reader who cares about discovery, adventure, and the little-known planet that sustains us.”
— Richard Conniff, author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth
"Major natural history museums of the world today collectively hold an enormous, irreplaceable collection of scientific objects numbering in the billions. Among this library of life and culture that has been assembled over several centuries, each piece has its own tale to tell. Christopher Kemp vividly brings several of these stories to life in The Lost Species. He chooses pieces ranging from a lowly nematode worm to the mighty dinosaur Apatosaurus (formerly known as Brontosaurus) to engage us. He presents these specimens to us not only as voucher specimens of Earth's biodiversity, but also as examples of human endeavor surrounding their discovery and eventual study. A great read for anyone interested in natural history museum collections, how they came to be, and what we can learn from them."
— Lance Grande, author of Curators