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

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  8,000 ratings  ·  441 reviews
“Compulsively readable—a masterpiece, maybe the masterpiece of science journalism.” —Bill McKibben, Audubon

A brilliant, stirring work, breathtaking in its scope and far-reaching in its message, The Song of the Dodo is a crucial book in precarious times. Through personal observation, scientific theory, and history, David Quammen examines the mysteries of evolution and extin
Paperback, 702 pages
Published April 14th 1997 by Scribner (first published August 15th 1996)
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L.G. Cullens
Nov 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 14, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, science
Disclaimer: I'm only about a third of the way through, I'll update this review as I go. So far:

This book is physically WEIGHTY. At first, I was pleased about this--if it's a good read give me more of it!--but as I went I grew more and more disappointed.

No, the length isn't really important, except that I feel a fine editor could have cut this into a 4-star book with ease. Quammen tells a compelling narrative of interesting, oft-overlooked biologists such as Alfred Wallace, whose story alone was
Dec 19, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This is the first book I've read by Quammen, an imminently talented journalist who perfectly balances the information and writing style of the book. He follows a chronological progression of island biogeography from Darwin through Jared Diamond (who became hugely famous shortly after the release of this book). Quammen's travelogues are excellent, combining a sympathetic, open perspective that is adventurous and engaged. Late in the book, Quammen describes a climb to the nest of a Mauritius kestr ...more
Oct 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: environment
This book gets high marks for its large scope covering many of the notable species extinctions and current vulnerable island populations and creating a convincing link between the two. This book does well when the author talks about the history of the animal species and those naturalists who did the early work like Darwin and Wallace. The author is quite knowledgeable and a truth seeker. The tone is not preachy whatsoever although there is an inconsistent approach to describing the species.

Nov 10, 2017 added it
Shelves: abandoned
No rating. I read about a fourth and then skim read about half more. His tone and attitude is so much accusatory and "chicken little" that what particles of real information that I can get about island isolation and other historic evolutionary boundaries, is lost within his sarcasm and blaming. Not for me his attitude, nor his disrespect. He writes of humans as if they were bacteria. He actually fat shames too, tourists or any one who he sees as action or appearance worthy for ridicule. (Those " ...more
Jul 16, 2007 rated it it was amazing
One of my all-time favorite books (this was a re-read) by my favorite natural history author. Anyone who likes Stephen Jay Gould or Howard Zinn style writing will enjoy David Quammen. Not only is it beautifully written, it intertwines stories of the development of the theory of evolution with modern scientific research and travel, and serves as a call to arms to save the last great wild places. ...more
May 12, 2022 rated it it was amazing
• THE SONG OF THE DODO: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen, 1996.

I spent a good bit of May making my way through this 700-page book about island ecosystems.

David Quammen is a science journalist, but he could probably moonlight as a comedian / satirical storyteller, because he's got jokes. He relays natural history with some wit and wryness, and choice four-letter words... It makes for very entertaining reading, a kind of running log of biology, travel / "funny stuff th
brian dean
Jan 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A fantastic book whose only flaw is that it requires the reader to keep track of various storylines.

Let's get my only complaint out of the way. Quammen does a good job of making us feel like we are part of the investigation into island biogeography but he does so by mixing several storylines together. These are the participants, locations and the time they occur, as they occur in the first unit.

Wallace's 1856 trip from Singapore to Lambok
Quammen's recent trip to Lambok
Nicolo di Conti's trip to t
This is a book about history: Animals and plants that once were and are no more, and how we should interpret that fact. When the question, “Why?” was asked, a new science was born. Quammen spends considerable effort building a context for this science. At first there were only observations, lists of features, catalogues of previously unknown species. Haphazard collections of these curiosities of nature captured the interest of Victorian naturalists. Volumes were filled. The list of new species s ...more
Jul 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
I have owned a copy of “The Song of the Dodo” for several years but at 625 pages, 178 chapters it seemed a bit daunting to dive into. There never seemed to be enough hours in the day. But after reading Quammen’s ”The Reluctant Mr. Darwin,” I felt it was time to give it a go. And go I did.

I think a good editor could have probably cut this tome down to 623 pages, which is my backhanded way of saying that "TSOTD" is a monumental book on natural history, well worth the time you need to invest into
Jun 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: evolution
One of the great classics of science literature. If the grading system were a one to ten, I would give it a ten. Quammen gives a pretty thorough history of island evolution and extinction. It's interesting to note that island evolution and extinction now applies to the mainland because we have created "islands" in our national parks and remaining wild areas. Other "islands" are formed in places like mountain tops. Sadly, once again the science is not very optimistic about the future, but we pres ...more
Jun 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Wildlife biologist and author Aldrin Mallari lent me a copy of this staggering book after knowing I had read "Wild Thoughts From Wild Places." I think I learned more about biogeography from reading this book than talking to a dozen biologists. The final image of the last Dodo on earth hunkering down in the jungle is haunting. Whenever I hear a Dutch ecologist try to lecture me about how Filipinos are ruining their environment, Quammen's descriptions of how the Dutch sailors clubbed and hunted to ...more
Jo Marshall
Jan 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: dusty-cobwebs
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 Othe ...more
Erik Graff
Sep 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sciences
My research assistantship at Loyola University was fortunate in that I was assigned for four years to one person, sometimes exclusively, sometimes with an additional assignment, who led me to intensively study matters I otherwise would probably not have explored so thoroughly. As a result I came to read the major works of both Wallace and Darwin, a good preparation for this book.

Like author Quammen, I most liked Wallace and for similar reasons. Similarly, the fact that The Song of the Dodo begin
Jun 26, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have a liberal arts degree. My little sister is studying conservation biology. She gave me this book and it interested me so much that I want to go back to school and study science now.
Sep 25, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Another superb book by David Quammen. One of the best books I’ve read all year.
Dac Crossley
May 05, 2012 rated it liked it
This came highly recommended. And Island biogeography has been important in the development of ecological theory.

The first part of the book discusses Alfred Wallace; it's very well written and I enjoyed it. I began to part with the author when he spoke disparagingly about a simple first-order equation. He claimed he didn't need to understand it. I realized that he didn't. Things went downhill after that.

Two flaws. Quammen doesn't seem to grasp the significance of ecosystems. The fauna (and flora
I finished it! (Further thoughts coming soon)
Jan 14, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent science writing. I’m impressed with Quammen’s ability to translate complex ecological concepts and into engaging and fascinating case studies without oversimplifying the information. 4/5 because it was a tad overwritten at points and occasionally loses focus. Also, he frequently refers to venomous snakes as ‘poisonous,’ which is a mistake I feel like a science writer shouldn’t be making.

Parts of it are out of date, but I read it 25 years after it was published so I can’t fault it ther
Sara Bruhns
Dec 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Possibly my best non-fiction book of the year, this entertaining-as-hell biogeography epic knocked it out of the park for me.

Quammen presents an overview of island biogeography and the application of its principles to our current worldwide ecological condition (/disaster). But there is SO much more here than that. There's tons of information, terms, history, philosophies, and ethics to sink your teeth into, but Quammen also takes you on every journey he took to gather all this great info. We vis
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Feb 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
A great book about ecology and travel

This is unquestionably the finest book I've read that explains biogeography and population ecology in clear, concise English for the average intelligent person interested in the natural world who lacks a background in science. Quammen deserves highest praise for devoting much time to learn relevant science and then disseminating this knowledge to his readers. Much to my amazement, Quammen fully understands the implications of MacArthur's and Wilson's theory o
Jan 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: to-read-again
This is a great natural history book. David Quammen begins by writing about Darwin, but then, to give credit where credit is due, he turns to his hero, Alfred Russel Wallace, who explored islands in the South Pacific. From his collections on the islands and in South America, Wallace began developing the concept of natural selection. Eventually, he, with Darwin, introduce this idea to the world From there, other ecological scientists expanded on the theory; people such as E.O Wilson, Jared Diamon ...more
This is the best natural history book I have ever read. Many sections read like a mystery novel, and yet it is still, according to Hutch (Whitman evolutionary biology professor), totally on-the-mark accurate. David Quammen's writing got me so fascinated with island biogeography that I did an independent study of it sophomore year. Eli and I are planning to visit Mauritius next year, the home of the dodo, as part of our big trip. Mauritius has a natural history museum devoted to the dodo and I in ...more
Dec 29, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
I didn’t enjoy this book very much. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s poorly written, I just personally don’t have enough of an interest in island biogeography to enjoy reading 700 pages of it. I ended up deciding to slog through this book instead of just putting it down. There are definitely a few interesting insights on species extinction but overall I found this a bit dense and drawn-out unless you have a very specific interest on the topic.
Bradley Johnson
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book was initially assigned reading in graduate school, but David Quammen's writing was so powerful that I returned to the book years later and then re-read it again. This is an eye-opening book that provides an unvarnished yet compelling read. Anyone who has read Elizabeth Kolbert's "The Sixth Extinction," should strongly consider picking-up "The Song of the Dodo," which provides deeper insight into the ongoing sixth great extinction in which we find ourselves today. ...more
Peter Tillman
Jul 06, 2016 rated it did not like it
DNF, didactic & wordy. Surprisingly poor book. I've had quite a few disappointments with Quammen's writing, at book-lengths anyway. Perhaps he's better at magazine-length stuff? ...more
Jun 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
First off, I have to say this is the absolute perfect book to follow up with Darwin's On the Origin of Species. It gives such relevant information which builds on Darwin's work and brings the immediacy of speciation and extinction.

20 years ago, I read a book called Playing God in Yellowstone which details the abysmal job the National Parks Service did on America’s first National Park. I was definitely reminded of that book here, but with fantastic research exploring the hows and the whys in add
Leah Markum
May 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 ran
Carol Tensen
Jun 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Whew - can't believe I finished this. I could have read The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote and Moby Dick in the same amount of time. The Song of the Dodo was given to me by someone who reads a heck of a lot faster than I do. Even though I was daunted by its heft, I was swayed by her enthusiasm.

In spite of some of the denser parts, I'm glad I made the effort. Quammen is an engaging writer, when he's not delving into mathematical intricacies (hey! This is an animal book - I was told there wasn't
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David Quammen (born February 1948) is an award-winning science, nature and travel writer whose work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Outside, Harper's, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review; he has also written fiction. He wrote a column called "Natural Acts" for Outside magazine for fifteen years. Quammen lives in Bozeman, Montana. ...more

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“Imagine a single survivor, a lonely fugitive at large on mainland Mauritius at the end of the seventeenth century. Imagine this fugitive as a female. She would have been bulky and flightless and befuddled—but resourceful enough to have escaped and endured when the other birds didn’t. Or else she was lucky.
Maybe she had spent all her years in the Bambous Mountains along the southeastern coast, where the various forms of human-brought menace were slow to penetrate. Or she might have lurked in a creek drainage of the Black River Gorges. Time and trouble had finally caught up with her. Imagine that her last hatchling had been snarfed by a [invasive] feral pig. That her last fertile egg had been eaten by a [invasive] monkey. That her mate was dead, clubbed by a hungry Dutch sailor, and that she had no hope of finding another. During the past halfdozen years, longer than a bird could remember, she had not even set eyes on a member of her own species.
Raphus cucullatus had become rare unto death. But this one flesh-and-blood individual still lived. Imagine that she was thirty years old, or thirty-five, an ancient age for most sorts of bird but not impossible for a member of such a large-bodied species. She no longer ran, she waddled. Lately she was going blind. Her digestive system was balky. In the dark of an early morning in 1667, say, during a rainstorm, she took cover beneath a cold stone ledge at the base of one of the Black River cliffs. She drew her head down against her body, fluffed her feathers for warmth, squinted in patient misery. She waited. She didn't know it, nor did anyone else, but she was the only dodo on Earth. When the storm passed, she never opened her eyes. This is extinction.”
“The next day, William Lanney's much abused remains were carried in a coffin to the cemetery. The crowd of mourners was large. It included many of Lanney's shipmates, suggesting that the whaling profession in late-nineteenth-century Hobart was graced with a higher level of humanistic sensibility than the surgical profession.” 3 likes
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