Chasing Kangaroos

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      By Tim Flannery. Grove Press, 258 pp, $29.95, hardcover

      Tim Flannery gained a huge new audience with the 2006 international bestseller The Weather Makers. Global warming was the subject of intense interest two years ago, and his commonsense and hopeful prescription for the planet's future seemed to strike a common chord.

      Most fans of the Australian professor and paleontologist, however, probably have no idea that his previous books are almost solely concerned with Australian and New Guinean wildlife and historical explorations of the Southwest Pacific. His latest, Chasing Kangaroos: A Continent, a Scientist, and a Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Creature, dives right back into that marsupial milieu, and its relatively narrow focus may put off recent Flannery converts.

      Within that focus, though, is a vast and fascinating microcosm of all things Macropodidae–that is, the family of animals that boasts marsupials such as kangaroos and wallabies. The history and development of these creatures is a captivating subject, at least for those interested in such things as evolutionary biology, history, geography, and, here, travel. The bonus with Chasing Kangaroos is that Flannery is perhaps the world's top authority on the topic. The drawback for some will be that most of the kangaroos he chases are long dead; others will recognize the scientific truism that to really understand today's living species we must fully, as much as possible, understand what went before.

      Fans of Stephen Jay Gould will like this, although the late Harvard prof would have covered the business in a much shorter and probably more readable and entertaining essay. As knowledgeable and passionate as Flannery is about the subject at hand, he comes up a bit short in the creative-writing department. Wasted opportunities abound in this narrative based on Flannery's travels throughout Australia during a 30-year odyssey of discovery, not the least of which is a surreal midnight experience, during a fossil-hunting trip, of a desert floor heaving with ghostly scorpions as far as the eye could see. The author himself seems to acknowledge this shortcoming when he later notes: "We need not only more scientists but poets as well–a Ted Hughes of paleontology–who can imagine those past lives and guide us through the labyrinth of time to show us how things were in the distant past."

      Flannery is a dab hand at popularizing complex notions, though, and despite some patches as dry as Coober Pedy dust, Chasing Kangaroos is a worthwhile read. Giant, flesh-eating kangaroos, anyone?