The Species Seekers, By Richard Conniff


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The Independent Culture

The first figure we meet is the French Colonel Dejean, who interrupted his charge of Spanish troops at the Battle of Alcaniz in 1809 to collect a beetle.

Retrieved from his shattered helmet, the bug Cebrio ustulatus was new to science. Who wouldn't want to charge headlong into this pantheon of eccentrics after such an opening?

As colourful as the quarry that lured them across the globe, Conniff's cast ranges from Alexander Wilson, who become America's leading ornithologist after a failed extortion attempt in Scotland, to the once-adventurous scientist who spent years at his Kent home peering at the creature he dubbed "Mr Arthrobalanus".

As Conniff points out, Darwin became "a bit of a barnacle himself". This is a most readable history of naturalists.