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The Song of the Dodo

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Overview

Thirty years ago, two young biologists named Robert MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson triggered a far-reaching scientific revolution. In a book titled The Theory of Island Biogeography, they presented a new view of a little-understood matter: the geographical patterns in which animal and plant species occur. Why do marsupials exist in Australia and South America, but not in Africa? Why do tigers exist in Asia, but not in New Guinea? Influenced by MacArthur and Wilson's book, an entire generation of ecologists has ...
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Overview

Thirty years ago, two young biologists named Robert MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson triggered a far-reaching scientific revolution. In a book titled The Theory of Island Biogeography, they presented a new view of a little-understood matter: the geographical patterns in which animal and plant species occur. Why do marsupials exist in Australia and South America, but not in Africa? Why do tigers exist in Asia, but not in New Guinea? Influenced by MacArthur and Wilson's book, an entire generation of ecologists has recognized that island biogeography - the study of the distribution of species on islands and islandlike patches of landscape - yields important insights into the origin and extinction of species everywhere. The new mode of thought focuses particularly on a single question: Why have island ecosystems always suffered such high rates of extinction? In our own age, with all the world's landscapes, from Tasmania to the Amazon to Yellowstone, now being carved into islandlike fragments by human activity, the implications of island biogeography are more urgent than ever. Until now, this scientific revolution has remained unknown to the general public. But over the past eight years, David Quammen has followed its threads on a globe-circling journey of discovery. In Madagascar, he has considered the meaning of tenrecs, a group of strange, prickly mammals native to that island. On the island of Guam, he has confronted a pestilential explosion of snakes and spiders. In these and other places, he has prowled through wild terrain with extraordinary scientists who study unusual beasts. The result is The Song of the Dodo, a book filled with landscape, wonder, and ideas. Besides being a grand outdoor adventure, it is, above all, a wake-up call to the age of extinctions.

Interweaving personal observation, scientific theory, and history, this beautifully written book takes the reader on a globe-spanning tour of wild places and ideas. "An epic adventure of the mind and spirit."--Robert Kanigel, The New York Times Book Review

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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).
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.

From Barnes & Noble
The author's globe-circling journey to islands from Madagascar to Guam shows why island biogeography--the study of the distribution of species on islands & islandlike patches of landscape--yields important insights into the origin & extinction of species everywhere.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780737204254
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/12/1996
  • Pages: 702
  • Product dimensions: 6.47 (w) x 9.61 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Customer Reviews

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