596: The Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein

by Gerard


596: Dinerstein, Eric. The Kingdom of Rarities. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2013. 270 pp. ISBN 978-1-61091-195-5.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Pure Science
  • 590: Zoological sciences
  • 596: Chordata (vertebrates)

In the world of animals, there exists an interesting phenomena: of the millions of species on the planet, why are there so many with extremely limited population sizes? What processes lead to the limiting of animal groups? Why, for instance, is the Kirtland’s warbler so rare that an entire festival is planned around their sighting? Eric Dinerstein, a veteran of the World Wildlife Fund, travels the world to check out hotspots of animal rarity. In The Kingdom of Rarities, he posits that the animal kingdom can be divided into two groups—the Kingdom of the Common and the Kingdom of the Rare. It’s these rare species that help to drive biological research and that research is one of the many keys required to unlock the mysteries of how the world’s ecosystems function.

Dinerstein’s investigations are limited to pockets of rare vertebrates in single habitats around the world. The zoological vignettes include:

  • An expedition to the Foja Mountains to discuss rarity in isolated mountain ranges. Here, bowerbirds, birds of paradise, echidnas, and tree kangaroos are studied to see how one of the last unstudied areas on Earth thrives.
  • A husband and wife team studying jaguars, pumas, and saki monkeys in the Madre de Dios region of Amazonian Peru to further analysis of how large mammals help to keep the ecosystem in balance.
  • A festival in Grayling, Michigan to study the Kirtland’s warbler, whose extreme habitat persnickety-ness limits population size. They only perch on middle-aged jack pines that grow on sandy, nutrient-poor soil that are also affected by periodic fires.
  • A look at the greater one-horned rhinoceros in Nepal and how human encroachment and poaching have made a mildly rare animal even rarer.
  • A hunt for the giant anteaters and maned wolves in the Cerrado rainforest in Brazil being slowly marched towards rarity by agriculture companies. Dinerstein goes on an expedition with a fellow researcher and her tracking Labrador to find animal scat (for valuable scientific data).
  • The introduction of invasive species onto the Hawaiian islands (humans, farm animals, and the malaria virus) and how that led to the shift in native populations (mainly bird species).
  • A look at a half-century of chemical and incendiary weapons  used human conflict and its affect on the kouprey, soala, and other large mammal populations of the forests of Vietnam and Cambodia.

This book is rich in biological facts, theories, and research. As a side benefit, you get a lot of inklings of current research being done by up-and-coming biologists and doctoral students. I thought maybe it would take me two days to finish this one, but after a chapter or two, I was thrilled to devour the entire thing. The writing starts off a little stilted, but smooths itself out once he goes exploring with fellow scientists. There are parts that feel like a cliched hippie lecture about curtailing agricultural invasions of native animal populations and reveling in the pure joy of seeing a rare species, but one the whole, the book educates as well as it excites. This one reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Royte’s The Tapir’s Morning Bath in that it looks at the both the animals being researched and the scientists doing the research. A thoroughly insightful and engaging book.