Leah Markum's Reviews > The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions

The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
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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.
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Reading Progress

March 14, 2015 – Shelved
March 14, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
March 29, 2015 – Shelved as: biological-sciences
October 3, 2016 – Started Reading
December 1, 2016 –
page 222
31.62%
February 28, 2017 –
page 436
62.11%
May 22, 2017 – Shelved as: 2017-reads
May 22, 2017 – Finished Reading

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