Review of the Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth

The Species Seekers by Richard Conniff

When Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus created a system for classifying species, the thirst for discovering the natural world was born. The Species Seekers is an account of the field naturalists, the closet naturalists (“specialists who stayed home and presided over specimens”), and the bumbling amateur naturalists whose rush to discover new species often led to a single species being classified many times over.

The book has a nice user-friendly layout, with each chapter focusing on a single voyage or type of discovery. The chapters are also divided by subheadings, which makes for an easier read.

Many of the “heroes” in the book are well-known to birders and non-birders alike (such as John James Audubon, of course), but others (many who fall into the “fools” category) are not widely known. For example, the French apothecary, Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur, was the first to use arsenic to preserve species. He kept his recipe secret throughout his lifetime. Other taxidermists struggled to find ways to preserve and display species in a way that would make them appear as lifelike as possible.

One of the interesting features of the book is the “Necrology” Appendix, a list of naturalists who died in their pursuit for new species and how they died. Gustav Kramer, for example, “was attempting to capture young rock doves from a nest when he lost his footing and fell to his death.”

Overall, The Species Seekers is an informative and entertaining read. The author blends humor with an impressive knowledge-base. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about natural history and taxonomy.

Written by Team Member Susan Callaway (Snowy Owl)

Disclaimer: We received a copy of this book from the publisher to review.

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