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Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums

by Christopher Kemp University of Chicago Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 256 pages
AU$64.99 NZ$65.21
Product Status: In Stock Now
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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.



The Vertebrates

1. Pushed up a Mountain and into the Clouds: The Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina)

2. Beneath a Color 83 Sky: The Ucucha Mouse (Thomasomys ucucha)

3. Going on a Tapir Hunt: The Little Black Tapir (Tapirus kabomani)

4. A Taxonomic Confusion: The Saki Monkeys (Pithecia genus)

5. Scattered to the Corners of the World: The Arfak Pygmy Bandicoot (Microperoryctes aplini)

6. The One That Got Away for 160 Years: Wallace's Pike Cichlid (Crenicichla monicae)

7. Here Be Dragons: The Ruby Seadragon (Phyllopteryx dewysea)

8. A Century in a Jar: The Thorius Salamanders

9. From a Green Bowl: The Overlooked Squeaker Frog (Arthroleptis kutogundua)

10. A Body and a Disembodied Tail: Smith's Hidden Gecko (Cyrtodactylus celatus)


The Invertebrates

11. Treasure in the By-Catch: The Gall Wasps (Cynipoidea species)

12. The Biomimic: The Lightning Cockroach (Lucihormetica luckae)

13. Sunk beneath the Surface in a Sea of Beetles: Darwin's Rove Beetle (Darwinilus sedarisi)

14. The Spoils of a Distant War: The Congo Duskhawker Dragonfly (Gynacantha congolica)

15. A Specimen in Two Halves: Muir's Wedge-Shaped Beetle (Rhipidocyrtus muiri)

16. Mary Kingsley's Longhorn Beetle (Pseudictator kingsleyae)

17. The Giant Flies (Gauromydas papavero and Gauromydas mateus)

18. It Came from Area 51: The Atomic Tarantula Spider (Aphonopelma atomicum)

19. The Host with the Most: The Nematode Worm (Ohbayashinema aspeira)

20. From a Time Machine on Cromwell Road: Ablett's Land Snail (Pseudopomatias abletti)

21. In Sight of Land: Payden's Isopod (Exosphaeroma paydenae)

22. A Ball of Spines: Makarov's King Crab (Paralomis makarovi)



23. In an Ikea Bag: The Custard Apple Family (Monanthotaxis Genus)


The Others

24. Waiting with Their Jackets On: The Fossils (Paleontology Specimens Collected by Elmer Riggs)

25. The First Art: The Earliest Hominin Engraving (a 500,000-Year-Old Shell)



Illustration Captions and Credits




Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor, emeritus, Harvard University

"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."


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

“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.”

Richard Conniff, author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth

“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.”



Lance Grande, author of Curators

"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."

Christopher Kemp is a scientist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.