Books and Beasts

Encyclopedia of New and Rediscovered Animals 

Shuker, Karl (2012: Coachwhip Publications, 368pp.) 

Building on two of Dr. Shuker’s earlier works, The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (HarperCollins, 1993) and The New Zoo: New and Rediscovered Animals of the Twentieth Century (House of Stratus, 2002), the Encyclopedia deserves its title. This is a mammoth collection of scientific achievements from 1900 to the present. It’s information-packed, thoroughly illustrated, and most enjoyable.

Shuker does not try to include all discoveries, since the beetles alone would merit a library. He goes for creatures that are relatively large or scientifically important, and those are more than sufficient to fill this large-format book. Shuker is a highly knowledgeable writer, as you’d expect from a Ph.D. who has been poking into the odd corners of zoology for four decades. He discusses both species and important subspecies, including those where there is some dispute about taxonomy (e.g., it’s not clear whether Rothschild’s giraffe is a subspecies, species, or just a local variation). The zoologically inclined reader will enjoy every page of this romp through monk seals, giant stick insects, megamouth sharks, monitor lizards, and other discoveries simply too numerous to mention.

One thing Shuker does not do is provide context by discussing species discovery curves or just how many new species are being found. He does, though, amply demonstrate his main theme: that discovery didn’t end with the “golden age” of the 1800s—indeed, it’s continued at a steady and often surprising pace right up to the present day.

This book has plenty of mysteries along with definite discoveries. Some are well-known. Others, like a slow loris with a thick bushy tail, a species not yet taxonomically described although it’s been held in captivity and photographed, surprised even a well-read aficionado like me. Likewise, some of the stories of discovery, like the coelacanth’s, have been told many times, but few people know the tragic tale behind the discovery of Flecker’s sea wasp jellyfish or how Rudie Kuiter discovered an octopus pretending to be a flounder. Shuker also includes stories of animals that didn’t live up to their hype as new species, like Mexico’s onza, which is not a new species of big cat but just an odd puma.

Shuker closes with a few words on potential future discoveries, a note on taxonomy, and a 33-page bibliography. The book includes hundreds of images, ranging from photos to Bill Rebsamen’s wonderful color illustrations. This is one of the classic books, not just of cryptozoology but of zoology and conservation biology. Readers will revisit it many times. It’s a great achievement.