The Ghost with Trembling Wings Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species

Scott Weidensaul

North Point Press



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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Three or four times an hour, eighty or more times a day, a unique species of plant or animal vanishes forever. It is, scientists say, the worst global extinction crisis in the last sixty-five million years—the hemorrhage of thirty thousand irreplaceable life-forms each year. And yet, every so often one of these lost species resurfaces—such as the Indian forest owlet, considered extinct for more than a century when it was rediscovered in 1997. Like heirlooms plucked from a burning house, they are gifts to an increasingly impoverished world.

In The Ghost with Trembling Wings, naturalist Scott Weidensaul pursues these stories of loss and recovery, of endurance against the odds, and of surprising resurrections. The search takes Weidensaul to the rain forests of the Caribbean and Brazil in pursuit of long-lost birds, to the rugged mountains of Tasmania for the striped, wolflike marsupial known as the thylacine, to cloning laboratories where scientists struggle to re-create long-extinct animals, and even to the moorlands and tidy farms of England on the trail of mysterious black panthers whose existence seems to depend on the faith of those looking for them. The Ghost with Trembling Wings is a book of exploration and a survey of the frontiers of modern science and wildlife biology.


Praise for The Ghost with Trembling Wings

"A lively, well-written account of the earth's rare, vanishing, extinct, problematical, and fantastical species of fauna (and flora) that anyone concerned with the decline of the natural world must find absorbing."—Peter Matthiessen

"Part natural history, part adventure story (starring Mr. Weidensaul as a kind of ecological-minded Indiana Jones, roaming the world in search of missing species) . . . Weidensaul demonstrates his ability both to communicate the startling marvels of nature he has observed firsthand and to regale us with tales of scientific derring-do, plucked from the annals of natural history."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"If you like the late Stephen Jay Gould, one of the popularizers of science, you will love Weidensaul."—Eric Sharp, The Detroit Free Press

"At the core of Weidensaul's book are fundamental questions about who we are, the state of our planet, and the faltering health of our ecosystems . . . [It] is as much about people as the animals they search for."—Anthony Doerr, The Boston Globe

"Weidensaul drives [his] message home with anecdotes, hard science and scene-setting reportage, but the tone of his book is not one of doom and gloom. His engaging account introduces readers to the scientists and volumteers who hunt for remnants of 'lost' species and attempt to restore viable populations—surely the work of optimists. Even cynical readers might find themselves experiencing twinges of idealism."—Dean Neprud, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Weidensaul writer superbly about animals and his role as an amateur naturalist."—Scientific American

"Scott Weidensaul ranks among an elite group of writer-naturalists—Bruce Chatwin, n0 John McPhee and David Quammen come to mind—whose straightforward eloquence elevates ecology to the level of philosophy."—Janice P. Nimura, Los Angeles Times

"A fascinating exploration of the mysteries of the extinction, occasional rediscovery and potential scientific reincarnation of long-vanished animals . . . Underlying the marvelous writing and fabulous creatures are some hard moral and scientific questions, like, how did we drive so many living things to extinction? Why do we continue to let so many extinctions happen when we could stop them? Have we developed the technical skills to re-create extinct animals by back-breeding or cloning with ancient DNA? And even if we could re-create these animals, would we?"—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"A splendid collage of tales involving hard-headed persistence, persistent hard-headedness, foolhardiness and sheer derring-do, often in the face of conditions-bad records and bad roads, civil unrest and uncivil swarms of insects-that would keep sane people at home."—Janet Lembke, The News & Observer (Raleigh)

"In his search for vanishing and imaginary creatures, Weidensaul takes us deep into the terra incognita of our planet—and ourselves. A great read."—Tim Flannery, author The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples

"Like the best nature-writers, he succeeds at making scientific inquiry into an adventure."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Weidensaul's beautifully written, well-referenced text explores . . . tantalizing scenarios, which include examples of dramatic, newsworthy science familiar from recent headlines . . . An engrossing read."—Library Journal (starred review)

"Suspenseful naturalist detective stories."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



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Scott Weidensaul is the author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Mountains of the Heart. He lives in the Pennsylvania Appalachians.
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  • Scott Weidensaul

  • Scott Weidensaul is the author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Mountains of the Heart. He lives in the Pennsylvania Appalachians.