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Department of Geography


Ghost Species: Geographies of Absence and Extinction

Ghost species

What does it mean to be a ‘ghost species’? A silent black-and-white film recording from 1918 shows the antics of a strutting and dancing heath hen. Filmed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation, this was part of a doomed attempt to study and preserve a species that had once roamed New Hampshire and Virginia but by the nineteenth century was confined to a reservation on Martha’s Vineyard. The last heath hen – ‘Booming Ben’ – vanished in 1932. After the species became extinct the film was forgotten and lost in storage. However, in 2014 the rediscovered footage of the heath hen, now digitized, was publicly released, thrilling conservationists who saw a bird suddenly “come to life“.

This footage raises a series of questions about what extinction means in a post-archival age, when digital media seems to preserve what is missing and DNA promises to resurrect what has vanished. In classifying species either according to whether they are present and accessible, or extinct and lost to the human gaze, do we miss out on the spectral gatherings that hover on the fringes of visibility?

What of white or transparent animals? What of the cryptic species that are imaginary or unobserved? What of the nonhumans who make themselves missing from human view? And what of the ancient mammals who may ‘return’ to life either in the form of ghostly inheritances (Heck cattle for aurochs; konik ponies for tarpan) or in a literal sense through cloning (woolly mammoths; passenger pigeons)? Thinking about existence in an age that has witnessed mass extinction (disappearance) and synthetic biology (reappearance) pushes us towards a new vocabulary of ghosts – a hauntology to use Derrida’s phrase – in order to make sense of what it means for a species to be ‘on the cusp’.

This project explores the idea that there is a spectre haunting conservation policies in the twenty-first century: the spectre of absence. Drawing on the recent ‘spectral turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, this project brings something new to debates about extinction, de-extinction, and restoration. When viewed through the lens of spectral geography, absence is not a lack of something – the opposite of presence. Rather, absence is powerful – it reverberates through landscapes and memories (‘gone but not forgotten’) and disturbs the ‘when’ of spatiotemporal experience and the ‘how’ of perception. This animation of absence has implications for conservation policy in two distinct ways.

By challenging its dreams of presence we reveal its missing geographies, the landscapes of haunting that are populated by the lost, the hidden, and the ‘barely-there’. Secondly, by making space for the absent, we rethink what extinction and loss means for the human engagement with nature. What if the almost-gone have a power that eludes the schematic representations of decline and disappearance publicised by the IUCN Red List? Synthetic biology has radically changed the horizon for conservation science and there is a now an opportunity for geographers to think about how the promise of spectral returns will help shape our understanding of ‘the natural’ in the twenty-first century. If we must learn to live in a “mongrel world” of changing natures, of hybrid landscapes of humans and nonhumans, then this also entails learning to live in a world shared with ghost species.

McCorristine, S. and Adams, W.M. (2019) ‘Ghost species: spectral geographies of biodiversity conservation’, cultural geographies 27:101-11,