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The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in…

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

by David Quammen

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1,1121511,455 (4.4)45
"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."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved… (more)

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» See also 45 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
Excerpts from my original GR review (Mar 2011):
- I love nonfiction that enlightens or completely introduces me to a subject. The book is an in-depth study of island biogeography and its close association to animal and plant extinctions, with a sufficient discussion of conservation ideas along the way. The emphasis is on animals more than plants, and the mid- to large-vertebrates within the animal kingdom...
- The author begins with a long chapter on the global wanderings of Alfred Russel Wallace, which begin in the Amazon but more significantly find him in Indonesia, where his developing, tentative theories about divergent species and isolation found incubation. Opinions about Wallace's somewhat relegated position to the more self-promoting Darwin is presented.
- He takes us to the tiny, hidden island of Komodo in the Indonesian archipelago, where a voracious, "gigantized" meat-eating monitor lizard, the Komodo dragon, resides. Nasty dude. Eats deer and pigs now, but probably eons ago ate small elephants. We then journey to Madagascar, where the otherworldly lemurs hang on to their fragile and shrinking ecosystem in the eastern mountains.
- Chapter IV is equal parts incredible and depressing, ..Dodo's demise is recounted, along with, among others, the thylacine (once called the "Tasmanian Tiger", though more a marsupial), which was fanatically hunted into oblivion. Oh, and the sorry tale of our own passenger pigeon is told. A couple of later sections begin to induce pain in the temples, only because, in fairness to Mr Quammen, he tries to lay out as scientifically reasonable the modern views of island biogeography, how it has been examined.. And what he does do very well is tell his entire narrative in lockstep with a wide variety of researchers, often going out into the forests, seas and deserts with them. A few oddballs for sure.
- What did I take away from this? Well, for one, it seems pretty clear to me that if we as a human race (the de facto caretakers of this little blue ball) can't find a means to preserve what little natural earth we have left, and continue to lose even our most beloved endangered animals (tigers, great apes, lemurs, elephants etc.), then the future of the species homo sapiens looks pretty bleak too...and for two, I've gotta get to Madagascar someday! ( )
1 vote ThoughtPolice | Jul 8, 2018 |
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? ( )
1 vote SeriousGrace | Mar 2, 2017 |
Best science book I ever read. ( )
  Eudocimus | Jan 30, 2011 |
Desultory fluff: This is by far the most desultory, fluff-filled history of biological evolution that I've ever read. Generally, I am not a skimmer of Quammen's work, and in fact often enjoy his wit and lithesome prose, but after only a dozen pages or so into Dodo I found myself flipping page after page looking for something substantive, looking for meat. In one word, the pace is SLOW. Over and over again in the margins I found myself scribbling "Go! Go! We'd advanced this far thirty pages ago!" But on the plus side I suppose if you are looking for a book to practice your speed reading, Dodo may be it: you can flip ten pages at a throw and hardly miss a thing.
1 vote iayork | Aug 9, 2009 |
A thoroughly engrossing read, and I can't better what the previous reviewers have written. Quammen's own sense of adventure imbues the entire work.

One of the most abiding sections in my own mind (which haunts me in its implications) is his discussion of what I could term patchwork conservation, where bits and pieces of an ecosystem are preserved-laudable but misguided (although surely better than nothing).

It is wonderful to have such brilliant writers about evolution who take the time to enlighten all of us about the wondrous discoveries made possible now through DNA decoding. I'm looking forward to the continuing study of human migrations as a tale being unraveled through study of genomes around the world. The science is far beyond me--but what fascination.

Read [[Richard Dawkins]] [Ancestor's Tale] after you've read this. Two mighty tomes well worth the time! ( )
  bridgitshearth | Jun 15, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (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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