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

by David Quammen

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1,3531912,085 (4.41)53
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.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
From the Malay Archipelago in the 1850s to the Malay Archipelago in the 1990s with stories of literal and metaphorical islands from around the globe, Song of the Dodo comes full circle. David Quammen's 625 pages worth of heavy reading donates the reader a sense of accomplishment measured in by the volume of details of scientific studies and the author's anecdotes of physical adventures.

This book is best read gradually to allow time to absorb information and not be irritated by the seemingly random listing of facts, over 100 short chapters, and choppy time lines that distracts from the broader theme: the modern global ecosystem is nothing but islands facing the same instability of the typical, small island in the ocean.

Quammen more or less follows the story of island biogeography chronologically, though the book at times is disorienting with several story lines operating at once. You can be on Komodo Island in the book's modern times with Quammen, then with someone else in the 1800s, maybe visit Alfred Wallace in the Amazon for fifty pages, quickly read a discussion about an island too small and isolated to maintain permanet populations, then back to Indonesia but with Wallace, and then...oh, I completely forgot the author was visiting Komodo Island!

The early stage of the book is one of my favourites despite the chaos because of the thorough perspective of Alfred Wallace's journey to independently devising the theory of evolution. In my schooling, Wallace was treated as an idea thief and Darwin a hero. Truthfully, Wallace was an animal collector for museums and identified hundreds of new species from the heart of Amazonia and the Malay Archipelago. He visited so many isolated regions by land and sea that he couldn't help but to ponder the underlying reason for the diversity he saw. He wrote to Darwin sharing his ideas for years. Since this book is about isolated ecosystems—the symbolic island—Wallace had some of the rightful glory many don't give him.

The Malay Archipelago, Amazonia, the Galapagos, Gulf of California, Guam, Florida Keys, Tasmania, various other literal islands, nature reserves, habitat fragments in Brazil from Rio to the experimental forests north of Manaus, and so many more. Song of the Dodo seemingly samples everything natural and isolated. Above the connecting themes of species migration to and from islands, the high risk of being decimated by a few environmental and human disturbances, and the application of ocean island biogeography to islands isolated by natural borders and habitat fragmentation, the book reads like a chronicle.

It's a chronicle of scientific exploration and a chronicle of every island holding a permanent population of some critter or another. It can take dozens of pages to make a subtle conceptual point, and then several other sets of dozens of pages to put together a major concept, like why many island species have no natural fear of predators even though the species is a ground-dwelling bird.

The chronicle aspect and the lack of continuity from chapter to chapter are the main reasons why I recommend reading this book in short spurts over a long-ish period of time. It's simply too drawn out between points, in overarching ideas or in action, to not get frustrated at times.

I have one favorite that rivals that of Wallace's adventures. If you have to read one segment of this book and forgo the rest, read pages 353 to 378. This is the second visit to Tasmania. The addition of this section is brilliant and satisfies my challenge that island biogeography doesn't affect just wildlife. These 25 pages are about the Tasmanian natives. It's a dark history of European settlers treating the native people in ways that Quammen draws many parallels to his previous Tasmanian section, one that was about the Tasmanian wolf. Other parallels the reader may draw to many other decimated human populations, but with a brutal island biography twist.

Scientific concepts develop through the book. This can be basic biology questions like why certain animals live on this island but not that island or why these species dwarfed from the size of their mainland cousins while other species grew much larger. However, on a longer time frame I saw Western speciesism turn to conservationism, island biogeography become a distinct discipline, ecology and biogeography become quantitative branches of science, the birth of conservation biology and theoretical ecology, the Single Large Or Several Small debate for designed nature reserves, and the hinted yet oddly never mentioned development of landscape ecology even though the term was coined fifty years before the latest dates mentioned within the book. I also have a great love for this discipline and got excited when I thought the story was going to find its way there. Still, it was fascinating to see the rest come into being.

There were times the pace and lack of connection between smaller story lines made me want to rate this book a three, rounded up from a two-point-something or other. Ultimately though, the pages holding one paragraph, the paragraphs little more than a list of titles or obscure details the author rambled about but tells the reader to go ahead and forget, and other short comings hide in the shadows of the knowledge gained. Many of the topics covered, particularly the history, I doubt I'll come across again. Viewed as a whole, Song of the Dodo belongs in a list of enlightening books that everyone should read once. This applies to science enthusiasts, but in addition it applies to those who want the context to the modern issues we need to address as responsible citizens of the planet.

Just like Wallace 140 years before, Quammen traveled to one of the most remote islands in the world—his words, I disagree on many accounts like local population, miles from major population centers, and frequency of public transport, all of which don't compare to Ascension Island and likely a few others. The Aru Islands lie to the southeast of Papua New Guinea and require several days and transitions to different modes of transport. It's an impressive undertaking nonetheless just to find the birds that really got Wallace thinking and publishing about island ecosystems and biological evolution. Essentially, the author visited where his story began. ( )
  leah_markum | Oct 28, 2022 |
How well do you understand the dynamics and consequences if insular evolution and extinction?

This is a serious, in-depth natural sciences book that (keeping in mind that ecology is a multifarious science) the predominate thrust of is ecological insularity and its consequences. For me, it pulled together and connected the dots of much I've previously learned piecemeal, and added to my understanding. The extensive detail of the book may be daunting to some, but is very informative and sobering if one reads carefully and strives to comprehend the concepts. It is not a book for those simply interested in entertainment, but it is an exceptional book for those with objective, inquiring minds if read in whole.

Herein are the What, When, Where, and Why of evolution and extinction relative to population viability that we are developing an understanding of, as evidenced in insular (i.e. restricted, whether an island or mainland habitat fragment) species. The author does try to elucidate important concepts with layman examples (e.g. mismatched socks), and there is a glossary, but there are other general terms the reader might want a dictionary close by for (e.g. words like nomothetic and idiographic). In addition, the curious reader desiring to picture unfamiliar life forms mentioned might have a wildlife field guide at hand, or use Wikipedia.

Lightening the scientific thrust of the writing, there are bits of personal reflections and travelogs.

The book also spans how we have arrived at our current understanding, with a bit of satire. Rightly so to my mind, befitting humankind's self-aggrandizing intellect, encompassing contradictory, absurd explanations. Possibly the most recognizable of these being the irreconcilability of Noah's ark with biological reality. Where there are more sensible differences in scientific theory, the author is even handed.

“. . . evolution is best understood with reference to extinction, and vice versa. In particular, the evolution of strange species on islands is a process that, once illuminated, casts light onto its dark double, which is the ultimate subject of this book: the extinction of species in a world that has been hacked into pieces.”

“. . . species extinction is central to the question of how Homo sapiens affects its own world” and to our own threatened existence. Odds are that such as rats and coyotes will fare better than humans in the environmental changes we are ignorantly creating in our insatiable greed. One reason that stands out is the habitat fragmentation caused by our infrastructure (note the relevance with insular species dynamics). We have proliferated beyond ecological balance, and with our plows, livestock, axes, poisons, industry, self-serving religious beliefs, and no more intelligence in good part than other life forms have brought about the ongoing sixth great extinction. Much as we are prone to ignore inconvenient problems, we are not exempt from such.

This isn't only about non-human evolution and extinctions, but also how our proclivities have affected fellow humans. One section about Tasmanian Aborigines, in practice corresponds to the settling (read colonizing) of North America, differing only in population size and extent of consequences. Trying to persuade natives to accept 'the blessings of Christian civilization' [or any other cultural dogma] by any means is among the subjective hypocritical tenets that are hastening our diminishment. The author aptly terms the settlers so-called benevolent interaction with the Tasmanian Aborigines as “in the truest tradition of Orwellian doublespeak.” As in North America this "serving mainly to anesthetize the collective conscience of the conquerors.”

Awareness of our most serious problems, or developing such through reading and understanding, is essential to our and our children's futures. There may still be time to mitigate the consequences, but the only hope in time is if a critical mass of humans acknowledge and confront our destructive proclivities sufficiently to bring about positive change. As things are, we are presenting the short end of the stick to our children. ( )
  LGCullens | Jun 1, 2021 |
I had never fully understood the word "biogeography" until reading Quammen's Song of the Dodo. According to Quammen on page 17 of Dodo, "Biogeography is the study of the facts and the patterns of species distribution." More importantly, the distribution of specific species on islands does much to argue the point of origin and "survival of the fittest" and adversely, extinction.

Song of the Dodo is a scientific adventure. It will prompt you to ask questions. Here's an example: I was particularly struck by the obvious/not-so-obvious Noah's Ark conundrum: exactly how big was this vessel if every single species was welcomed aboard two by two? As Quammen pointed out, "Noah's ark was getting too full" (p 34).
What about this question - who was responsible for the theory of natural selection? Quammen delves into the controversy surrounding the competition between Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin. Again, to quote Quammen "Was Darwin guilty of scummy behavior, or wasn't he?" (p 109).
All in all, the subject matter for Song of the Dodo could be considered dry but the writing is most definitely entertaining. Where else can you find such a scientific topic interspersed with words like crazybig, godawful, helluva, whonks, and my personal favorite, badass?
  Alhickey1 | Oct 15, 2020 |
Excellent book about island biogeography and how this applies to continental conservation management. ( )
  ElentarriLT | Mar 24, 2020 |
This book was maddening. It had enough good points to keep me going to the end, but enough irksome points that I almost quit reading.

I’ll start with some of its better points; while some parts were virtually bone-dry, they were more than made up for by the large portions that were compulsively readable. The islands and island-equivalents were well-described, and the maps were also helpful. The book also did a good job at making most of the scientists come to life. I also appreciated the breakdown of the extremely large chapters (in some cases over one hundred pages each) into much shorter and more digestible subsections (many were only a few pages long – perhaps five or ten at most).

Now for what drove me nuts. First, this book is in need of an editor. I have nothing against long books per se, but when a book about island biogeography starts describing an investigation into a murder with unclear motives and a mugging in Rio, it becomes rather annoying. Same thing with the multiple accounts of the travails involved in not speaking the local languages very well. Once or twice is understandable, and even more so if it impacts the science or has some other significance – and there were a few places where it did, but not very many. In addition, the author seems to have an odd relationship with his subject matter. For example, he spent literally pages discussing the ratites in detail, and another couple pages on ground-dwelling carabid beetles – and then said, “Have you forgotten the ratites? Good. Now I invite you to forget also the geophilic carabids.” (page 203). Which made me want to scream, then why did you go on about them so much? I’m fortunate I have an interest in biology in general, because if I hadn’t, things like this would have made me feel like I had wasted my time.
( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Another soppy environmentalist tract, reeking of snail darters and spotted owls, earnest unto death? Well, to indulge in one of Mr. Quammen's own writerly mannerisms, let's stop right here for a moment to correct that misapprehension. A former Rhodes scholar, an award-winning essayist for Outside magazine and the author of two collections of articles and essays and of three novels, Mr. Quammen is, by trade, neither professional environmentalist nor scientist. He is a writer. And the book he has worked on for 10 years is intelligent, playful and refreshingly free of cant.
 
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.
 

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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 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.

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