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New 'Dungeons & Dragons'-inspired book brings awareness to extinction crisis

An animated image of a fantastical elk-like creature with the title "Book of Extinction"
Lucas Ferreira CM
Mage Hand Press
Over the last two and a half years, author Lucas Zellers worked with the Center for Biological Diversity to create the Book of Extinction, a role-playing game manual inspired by over 70 animal species that have vanished from the planet.

Lucas Zellers enjoyed playing Dungeons & Dragons as a child. He fell in love with his dad’s "monster manual" – a book that lists out the monsters that the dungeon master can use against players in the game.

“It was just this slim little softcover volume that was full of pictures and interesting facts about crazy weird creatures,” Zellers said. “That really got me from the time that I was very young, and it arguably put me on the path that I have taken to be the person I am today.”

As he got older, Zellers noticed that these manuals looked a lot like field guides and animal encyclopedias. That’s when he had the idea to create a book that focused on real-life extinct species from around the world. He started to do some research – visiting museums, reading articles and talking with specialists.

“When I started getting into the research and found out just how many—and how quickly—these extinctions were happening, it became a matter of urgency very quickly for me,” Zellers said.

Zellers knew the book would be popular based on the rise of fantasy genres in pop culture, exemplified through hits like Stranger Things and Lord of the Rings.

“Extinction is a part of the DNA of what makes fantasy what it is,” he said. “It's very good at nostalgia and talking and figuring out how to handle a world that is less magical and less ferocious than it was before.”

He contacted several conservation organizations to help with the book and the Center for Biological Diversity answered his call. Over the last two and a half years, they worked together to create the Book of Extinction, a manual inspired by over 70 animals that have vanished from the planet.

“Making the connection between conservation and Dungeons & Dragons is a bit of a leap. I understand that,” Zellers said. “But they [the Center] were one of the first people to recognize the potential in this way of storytelling."

Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a webinar that this book is being published at a time when millions of species have been labeled as extinct.

“We know things are bad, but science isn't going to get us out of this mess that we've created,” she said. “We have to win people's hearts and minds. We have to address this with passion and creativity, and we have to do it across social sectors and across disciplines.”

The book—which is planned to be published by the end of 2023—features species like the Carolina parakeet, which was once native to eastern Colorado. On one page, there are historical, accurate accounts of the bird, and on the opposite page is a fantasized, demigod version of the bird with glowing blue eyes.

On the left hand side, a rectangular frame shows green and yellow birds perched in a tree while, on the right hand side, another rectangular frame shows a black, yellow and green bird with a glowing head and piercing blue eyes
Lucas Ferreira CM
Mage Hand Press
A historical photo of the Carolina parakeet next to a fantastical illustration of the bird in the Book of Extinction. The illustrator relied on a story about the last-known Carolina parakeet to develop the character for the game.

The inspiration for the bird’s fantasy illustration came from the last known Carolina parakeet – named Incas – that died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. The bird was preserved in ice to be sent to the Smithsonian, but it never arrived.

“We pictured Incas as a patron deity or an arch fay, perhaps a wandering demigod covered in eternal hoarfrost and stricken mad with grief,” Zellers said.

Other Mountain West species in the book include the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Rocky Mountain locust.

In a frame on the left, illustrated black and gray birds with red heads perch on a tree limb. In a frame on the right, an illustrated bird with the same colors stands with a circle of golden symbols revolving around its stomach
Lucas Ferreira CM
Mage Hand Press
A historical drawing of the ivory-billed woodpecker next to a fantastical illustration of the bird in the Book of Extinction. This is one of a few Mountain West species mentioned in the book.

Zellers mentioned that people today are born into the world with fewer fellow species than when their ancestors were alive. He said his goal with this book is to help people understand the magnitude and extent of the species we've already lost by showing the animals in a wild, fierce way.

“That kind of emotional investment and experience can really be a first step towards moving people to put their energy and their time and their money into conservation in the first place,” he said.

The book was fully crowd-funded within five hours after its fundraising launch in late March on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Zellers plans to use the remaining funds to add more content to the book before it is published by the end of this year. Readers can access a sample of the book here.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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