The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions

4.7 15
by David Quammen

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David Quammen's book, The Song of the Dodo, is a
brilliant, stirring work, breathtaking in its scope,
far-reaching in its message -- a crucial book in
precarious times, which radically alters the way in
which we understand the natural world and our place
in that world. It's also a book full of entertainment
and wonders.

In The


David Quammen's book, The Song of the Dodo, is a
brilliant, stirring work, breathtaking in its scope,
far-reaching in its message -- a crucial book in
precarious times, which radically alters the way in
which we understand the natural world and our place
in that world. It's also a book full of entertainment
and wonders.

In The Song of the Dodo, we follow Quammen's keen
intellect through the ideas, theories, and experiments
of prominent naturalists of the last two centuries.
We trail after him as he travels the world,
tracking the subject of island biogeography, which
encompasses nothing less than the study of the origin
and extinction of all species. Why is this island
idea so important? Because islands are where
species most commonly go extinct -- and because, as
Quammen points out, we live in an age when all of
Earth's landscapes are being chopped into island-like
fragments by human activity.

Through his eyes, we glimpse the nature of evolution
and extinction, and in so doing come to understand
the monumental diversity of our planet, and
the importance of preserving its wild landscapes,
animals, and plants. We also meet some fascinating
human characters. By the book's end we are wiser,
and more deeply concerned, but Quammen
leaves us with a message of excitement and hope.

Editorial Reviews

Edward Neuert

In the annals of science there are many instances of pure, unleavened bad luck thwarting a researcher's best efforts. But there may be no more heartrending occurrence than that which befell naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, in August of 1852, aboard the ship Helen. For four years Wallace had slogged through the mud, swollen rivers and mosquitoes of the Amazon basin, assembling a huge collection of exotic fauna. Then, in the middle of the Atlantic on his return voyage, the ship's other cargo of balsam resin spontaneously combusted. Wallace escaped to a lifeboat, and watched every pickled bird and dried butterfly go up in flames. He whiled away his time sketching dolphins and seabirds before being rescued. And, as David Quammen notes in The Song of the Dodo, something important came of this tragedy: the wreck of the Helen forced Wallace back out into the field to the Malay archipelago where, simultaneously with Darwin, he developed the theory of evolution.

Don't let Quammen's subtitle -- "Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions" -- scare you off. Yes, this is a big book, over 700 pages, and it deals with big science. But it's filled with stories of inquisitive humans like Wallace who, almost by chance, have drawn a complex picture of where species come from, and some frightening speculation about they are headed.

Quammen's book, put most simply, is a study of the distribution of life on islands. Because, as Quammen notes, "Isolation plus time yields divergence," islands by their geographical isolation have served to "give clarity to evolution." Nineteenth century naturalists like Wallace and Darwin were drawn to islands not only because of the giant tortoises, lizards and flightless birds that lived there, but because all that gigantism seemed to offer clues to the mystery of evolution in large, easy-to-read letters.

Quammen has spent the last 10 years following modern island biogeographers around the globe, and he makes their work accessible to the lay reader. Most important, though, is his contention that we have, in effect, developed the modern world into a series of biological islands, and have inevitably upped the threat of extinction by doing so. The Song of the Dodo could easily have been a hundred pages shorter, but Quammen's easygoing style, which readers may be familiar with from his columns in Outside magazine, makes the effort worthwhile. This book is a complicated and charming scientific history: a rare species indeed. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Quammen (Natural Acts) has successfully mixed genres in this highly impressive and thoroughly enjoyable work. The scientific journalism is first-rate, with the extremely technical field of island biogeography made fully accessible. We learn how the discipline developed and how it has changed conservation biology. And we learn just how critical this field is in the face of massive habitat destruction. The book is also a splendid example of natural history writing, for which Quammen traveled extensively. The Channel Islands off California and the Madagascan lemurs are captivatingly portrayed. Equally impressive are the character studies of the scientists who have been at the forefront of island biogeography. From his extended historical analysis of the journeys and insights of 19th-century biologist Alfred Russell Wallace to his field and laboratory interviews with many of the men and women who have followed in Wallace's intellectual wake, Quammen delightfully adds the human dimension to his discussion of science and natural history. Using a canvas as large as the world, he masterfully melds anecdotes about swimming elephants, collecting fresh feces from arboreal primates in Brazil and searching for the greater bird of paradise on the tiny island of Aru into an irreverent masterpiece. That a book on so technical a subject could be so enlightening, humorous and engaging is an extraordinary achievement. Author tour. (Apr.)
Library Journal
The self-contained ecosystem is again used as a benchmark in this study of evolution and extinction by the author of Natural Acts (LJ 3/15/85).
A captivating work of scientific journalism which explains the worldwide ecosystem decay which is at the root of countless species' extinction and which will continue to wipe out species as human activity carves the wilderness into ever-increasing island-like fragments. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
Everything you might want to know about life and death on islands here, there, and everywhere on the globe can be found in Quammen's study of island biogeography.

The National Magazine Awardwinning science writer (Outside magazine; The Flight of the Iguana, 1988, etc.) asks, Why does island life differ radically from mainland life? The answer, not surprisingly, is evolution. There are unique evolutionary opportunities as well as pressures on islands. On oceanic islands, which arise from deep sea eruptions (such as the Galápagos Islands), there may be fewer varieties of species; the first arrivals often expand to fill all sorts of ecological niches in a process called adaptive radiation. So it was with the varied populations of finches that Charles Darwin observed in the Galápagos. Islands that sit on continental shelves near enough to mainlands to have been connected by land bridges at times of major glaciation may have animal species as varied as those on the mainland, but the species are likely to differ in their behavior or appearance from mainland relatives. Some reptiles isolated on islands grew large, like the Komodo dragon of Indonesia; some mammals shrank, like the pygmy elephants found in Sicily. Some birds became flightless, like the celebrated dodo native to Mauritius. Quammen provides abundant examples of the variables that can foster or doom populations, ranging from the sheer size of an island (big is better), to bouts of bad weather, to the introduction of farming and the animal camp followers of man: pigs, rats, and cats. The book's virtues include Quammen's vivid account of his treks to the world's wild places and interviews with the experts he finds there. The downside is too much of a muchness; Quammen's zeal to spill all his notes and a breezy style that grows wearying.

Taken in small bites, however, there is much to glean here about the wonders, and also the fragility, of life on earth.

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Chapter 1


Let's start indoors. Let's start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife. The carpet is twelve feet by eighteen, say. That gives us 216 square feet of continuous woven material. Is the knife razor-sharp? If not, we hone it. We set about cutting the carpet into thirty-six equal pieces, each one a rectangle, two feet by three. Never mind the hardwood floor. The severing fibers release small tweaky noises, like the muted yelps of outraged Persian weavers. Never mind the weavers. When we're finished cutting, we measure the individual pieces, total them up -- and find that, lo, there's still nearly 216 square feet of recognizably carpetlike stuff. But what does it amount to? Have we got thirty-six nice Persian throw rugs? No. All we're left with is three dozen ragged fragments, each one worthless and commencing to come apart.

Now take the same logic outdoors and it begins to explain why the tiger, Panthera tigris, has disappeared from the island of Bali. It casts light on the fact that the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, is missing from Bryce Canyon National Park. It suggests why the jaguar, the puma, and forty-five species of birds have been extirpated from a place called Barro Colorado Island -- and why myriad other creatures are mysteriously absent from myriad other sites. An ecosystem is a tapestry of species and relationships. Chop away a section, isolate that section, and there arises the problem of unraveling.

For the past thirty years, professional ecologists have been murmuring about the phenomenon of unraveling ecosystems. Many of these scientists have become mesmerized by the phenomenon and, increasingly with time, worried. They have tried to study it in the field, using mist nets and bird bands, box traps and radio collars, ketamine, methyl bromide, formalin, tweezers. They have tried to predict its course, using elaborate abstractions played out on their computers. A few have blanched at what they saw -- or thought they saw -- coming. They have disagreed with their colleagues about particulars, arguing fiercely in the scientific journals. Some have issued alarms, directed at governments or the general public, but those alarms have been broadly worded to spare nonscientific audiences the intricate, persuasive details. Others have rebutted the alarmism or, in some cases, issued converse alarms. Mainly these scientists have been talking to one another.

They have invented terms for this phenomenon of unraveling ecosystems. Relaxation to equilibrium is one, probably the most euphemistic. In a similar sense your body, with its complicated organization, its apparent defiance of entropy, will relax toward equilibrium in the grave. Faunal collapse is another. But that one fails to encompass the category of floral collapse, which is also at issue. Thomas E. Lovejoy, a tropical ecologist at the Smithsonian Institution, has earned the right to coin his own term. Lovejoy's is ecosystem decay.

His metaphor is more scientific in tone than mine of the sliced-apart Persian carpet. What he means is that an ecosystem -- under certain specifiable conditions -- loses diversity the way a mass of uranium sheds neutrons. Plink, plink, plink, extinctions occur, steadily but without any evident cause. Species disappear. Whole categories of plants and animals vanish. What are the specifiable conditions? I'll describe them in the course of this book. I'll also lay siege to the illusion that ecosystem decay happens without cause.

Lovejoy's term is loaded with historical resonance. Think of radioactive decay back in the innocent early years of this century, before Hiroshima, before Alamogordo, before Hahn and Strassmann discovered nuclear fission. Radioactive decay, in those years, was just an intriguing phenomenon known to a handful of physicists -- the young Robert Oppenheimer, for one. Likewise, until recently, with ecosystem decay. While the scientists have murmured, the general public has heard almost nothing. Faunal collapse? Relaxation to equilibrium? Even well-informed people with some fondness for the natural world have remained unaware that any such dark new idea is forcing itself on the world.

What about you? Maybe you have read something, and maybe cared, about the extinction of species. Passenger pigeon, great auk, Steller's sea cow, Schomburgk's deer, sea mink, Antarctic wolf, Carolina parakeet: all gone. Maybe you know that human proliferation on this planet, and our voracious consumption of resources, and our large-scale transformations of landscape, are causing a cataclysm of extinctions that bodes to be the worst such event since the fall of the dinosaurs. Maybe you are aware, with distant but genuine regret, of the destruction of tropical forests. Maybe you know that the mountain gorilla, the California condor, and the Florida panther are tottering on the threshold of extinction. Maybe you even know that the grizzly bear population of Yellowstone National Park faces a tenuous future. Maybe you stand among those well-informed people for whom the notion of catastrophic worldwide losses of biological diversity is a serious concern. Chances are, still, that you lack a few crucial pieces of the full picture.

Chances are that you haven't caught wind of these scientific murmurs about ecosystem decay. Chances are that you know little or nothing about a seemingly marginal field called island biogeography.

Copyright © 1996 by David Quammen

Meet the Author

David Quammen

David Quammen was born in 1948, near the outskirts
of Cincinnati, Ohio, and spent much of his boyhood
in an eastern deciduous forest there. His interest in
the natural world -- hiking through woods, grubbing in
creeks, collecting insects, taking reptiles hostage and
calling them pets -- was so all-consuming that he
would eventually, during adolescence, need remedial
training in basketball.

At an early age he learned the word herpetologist and
decided he might like to be one. But he had always been
interested in writing; and at the age of 17, he met Thomas G.
Savage, a Jesuit priest. Savage was to become a life changing
teacher, fostering Quammen's literary ambitions and
prospects, and encouraging him to attend college at Yale.
He knew that at Yale Quammen would find a superb English
department, and encounter people such as Robert Penn
Warren, a great American novelist, poet, and critic. Despite
his not having heard of Penn Warren, Quammen followed
the priest's advice and enrolled at Yale. Fools luck was
smiling on him, as were generous and trusting parents, and
three years later he found himself studying Faulkner at the
elbow of Mr. Warren, who became not just his second life
changing teacher but also his mentor and friend. Quammen
never forgot Thomas Savage's encouragement: The Song of the
is dedicated to this vast-hearted curmudgeon, who
died young in 1975.

In 1970, Quammen published his first book, a novel titled
To Walk the Line, which had been steered toward daylight by
Mr. Warren. Also that year, he began a two-year fellowship at
Oxford University, England, where he continued studying
Faulkner, loathed the climate, loathed the food, loathed the
vestiges of upper-class snobbery, met a few wonderful
people, and spent much of his time playing basketball (the
remedial training had helped) for one of the university
teams. Promptly after Oxford, Quammen moved to Montana,
carrying all his possessions in a Volkswagen bus to this state
in which he had never before set foot. The attractions of
Montana were 1) trout fishing, 2) wild landscape, 3) solitude,
and 4) its dissimilarity to Yale and Oxford. The winters are
too cold for ivy.

Quammen made his living as a bartender, waiter, ghost
writer, and fly-fishing guide until 1979. Since then he has
written full time. In 1982 he married Kris Ellingsen, a
Montana woman even more devoted to solitude than he is.

His published work includes two spy novels (The Zolta
Configuration, The Soul of Viktor Tronko
), a collection of short
stories about father-son relationships (Blood Line), two
collections of essays on science and nature (Natural Acts, The
Flight of the Iguana
), several hundred other magazine essays,
features, and reviews, as well as The Song of the Dodo. From
1981 through 1995, he wrote a regular column about science
and nature for Outside magazine, and in 1987 received the
National Magazine Award in Essays and Criticism for work
that appeared in the column. In 1994 he was co-winner of
another National Magazine Award. In 1996 he received an
Academy Award in literature from the American Academy of
Arts and Letters. He remains a Montana resident, despite the
arrival of cappuccino.

In 1998 Scribner will publish Strawberries Under Ice, a new
collection of Quammen's magazine essays and features, subtitled
"Wild Thoughts from Wild Places." The wild places in
question, from which he has drawn observations and
inspiration in recent years, include Tasmania, southern Chile,
Madagascar, the Aru Islands of eastern Indonesia, Los
Angeles, suburban Cincinnati, and of course, Montana.

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Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
AesculusOH More than 1 year ago
I had never heard of Island Biogeography before reading this compelling and entertaining book. It opened my eyes to the incredible interconnectedness of all life on earth. The explanations of how colonization and subsequent speciation dictate the flora and fauna of an island was an epiphany. I've since read all the other books by David Quammen and have been enthralled by every one. Quammnen's style of writing is humorous but scientifically accurate. When I turned the last page of his book I exclaimed aloud "oh no!" I've since reread the book and found it just as riveting the second time around.
Guest More than 1 year ago
By far, one of the most engaging books I have ever read. A must read for any one interested in nature, islands, or evolution. Would highly recommend this book to any student of life sciences.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Quammen's book reads like a novel but is packed with enough information to rival most ecology texts. The difference between 'Song of the Dodo' and standard textbooks is that Quammen's book could easily be understood even by those without strong science backgrounds. In addition, the book is so engaging that the anxiety some experience when trying to 'memorize' new terms is completely avoided as new terms fall easily into usage. There are parts at which readers with strong backgrounds in ecological theory may be left a bit disappointed as Quammen avoids what he calls 'burdensome' equations (which are essential in some cases) and may abandon a thorough scientific explanation to keep things moving and hold readers' interests. All things considered, though, the faults with this book are few. It's a fascinating and worthwhile read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a well written, long and detailed, discussion of recent work in biogeography with special emphasis on the impact of humans on the future of other species. The occasional crude language seems unnecessary and the book would not have suffered had that been left out. This book is not an easy read as it requires the reader to think and consider the content carefully. The author gives a lot of attention (deserved) to the work and writings of Alfred Russel Wallace.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book will explain to you how we as humans are responsible for the destruction of Earth. It reads like a compelling novel; unfortunately its not a tale of fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great mix of history, biology and the stories and work of modern researchers. A real page-turner!
jomarshall-twigstories More than 1 year ago
After reading 'The Flight of the Iguana' by David Quammen, I had no qualms about undertaking another amazing journey, 'The Song of the Dodo' even though I had no clue at the time what island biogeography was, and only an elementary concept of extinction. This book could actually have had many titles that would have been equally mysterious to an environmental layman like me: 'The History of Biogeography and What That Actually Is' or 'Great Men With Controversial Theories of Biodiversity, and Other Such Stuff' or 'The Inevitable Spiral Toward Species Extinction - And That Includes All Species' or even 'How We Came to Value Modern Conservation Science or Something Like That.' But I began reading Quammen's story anyway because I knew from his earlier book that he was incredibly informative in a casual, "favorite professor" sort of way. Meaning that just when your comprehension starts to fail, he speaks directly to you from his narrative, and snaps you back onto a level playing field of enlightenment. I read it because I knew Quammen would teach me something important that I would remember, and that his topics always matter. I call this a story, because it reads like one. It begins simply, and ends the same way. In between, all the historical facts, scientific theories, and personality studies come to actually mean something in today's world, and will to anyone who reads this book. And I guarantee that you will cry because you've never heard the song of the dodo, and cry, too, because Quammen helped you hear those of the indri and the cenderawasih.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
despite some misguided and unsubstantiated 'facts' put forth to the readers, this book mandates so little use of brain cells that it actually hurts the brain - a way of entropy perhaps.