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

Review:

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Despite being fascinated by the topic and partial to the author (who’s one of the best science writers working today, in my opinion), it took me years to actually sit down and read The Song of the Dodo because it’s well over 600 pages (not counting footnotes) – dauntingly long for a mom of young kids. However, I finally managed it!

Quamman is able to successfully make the sometimes quite technical subject of island biogeography both accessible and fascinating. The study of island biogeography – which is essentially studying what lives where, and why, with particular attention to islands – has been critical to developing our understanding of the processes of both evolution and extinction. The Song of the Dodo includes a long and fascinating account of the early history of evolutionary science, with a focus on the life and travels of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace is famous to most people as the guy who came up with the idea of natural selection independently of Darwin and almost got credit for it, but he played a larger role than Darwin in the early development of the study of island biogeography.

Island biogeography is important to evolutionary science not only because of the incredible profusion of unique and bizarre creatures on the world’s remote islands, but also because it was the study of patterns of distribution of island flora and fauna that demonstrated most plainly to Darwin, Wallace, and other evolutionary biologists both past and present that if God had a hand in evolution (as the theory of special creation, the dominant theory in Darwin’s time, assumed He did), He followed some very strict rules in determining the distribution of island species… rules that just happened to be indistinguishable from what you would expect to find from a close study of the dispersion ability of different species.

For example, islands tend to have a lot of birds, which can fly or be blown across stretches of open ocean, but few amphibians, whose moist skin makes them sensitive to saltwater and incapable of surviving extended ocean voyages. Many of the most remote volcanic islands, such as Hawaii or the Galapagos, have no native amphibians at all. Observations like these led to Wallace’s deduction that “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species” – an insight which seems like simple common sense today, but which was a game-changing flash of genius at the time it was made.

Islands have also been critical to our understanding of extinction, and here is where island biogeography becomes important not just to the history of science and the residents of islands, but to the entire world. Human activities are increasingly carving up mainland wilderness into patches of habitat that are, in many cases, isolated as effectively from other patches of wilderness as the remotest volcanic island is from the shore. And because island ecosystems tend to have higher rates of extinction than mainland ecosystems, we can study island extinction patterns to learn what is in store for species trapped in isolated refuges on the mainland. (Spoiler: extinction, frequently.)

Quamman unfurls all these points with literary style and copious use of real world examples, collected in his extensive travels and interviews with working scientists on islands both literal and de facto. My only complaint about the book is his fondness for extended digressions. They are generally as fascinating as everything else (watching komodos, trying to find a thylacine, sharing the story of an extraordinary teenage naturalist from Madagascar and his work with lemurs), but it leads to a lot of hopping around in space and time, which lends the book a somewhat disorganized feel at times.

I also wonder if, with a tighter narrative, there might have been more room for discussion of the practical applications of island biogeography, which didn’t get much attention in Quamman’s book. For example, wildlife managers use insights from island biogeographers about how to maintain viable populations in the face of human encroachment to develop conservation corridors that allow species to safely travel between isolated patches of habitat. Fortunately, corridors and other topics in practical conservation ecology are discussed at length in books such as Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Trackbacks

  1. […] and often localized extinction. (For more on this phenomenon, check out David Quamman’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction.) Trapping wildlife in islands surrounded by urban, suburban, and rural development is especially […]

  2. […] It’s a fascinating read and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in wildlife conservation, ecology, or natural history. It also makes a good companion read for Quamman’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. […]

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