Spring 1997. An active volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat forced thousands to flee the island. Britain is gripped by the worst drought in two centuries. The koala population in Australia is exploding. Brooklyn's trees are being eaten by the Asian long-horned beetle. If you see no relationship among these events, read David Quammen's superb book, "The Song of the Dodo," and learn about island biogeography, "the study of the facts and patterns of species distribution."
When most people look at animals they only see the animals--tigers, tortoises, hornbills, rhinos and so on. They never ask why an animal is the way it is or how it got that way; where it came from and what it is like. Few wonder why animals are where they are and why they're not where they're not. Quammen does, so he takes readers on an intriguing and fascinating tour of island biogeography that relates the history of famous early biologists from Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and Joseph Hooker to biogeographers of today like Michael Soulé and Edward O. Wilson.
Quammen's bibliography is 23 pages of references in very tiny type. Fortunately, despite years spent researching Dodo, Quammen wasn't content to spend all his time reading dry academic papers and obscure texts. Instead he broke out his hiking boots and retraced the steps of some of these explorers. He describes his personal experiences colorfully with analogies, anecdotes and descriptions. If you've been to some of the places he describes, you feel like you ought to go back to see through opened eyes. If you haven't been there, you feel like you ought to go--with Quammen's book in your backpack. Here's his description of Komodo dragons being fed a goat carcass by rangers on Komodo Island in Indonesia.
"They snarf and chomp. They gorge. They thrash, they scuffle, they tug and twist. They stir up one helluva ruckus. Within a few seconds they have composed themselves at its axis; elbow to elbow, jaws locked on the meat, tails swinging, they resemble a monstrous nine-pointed starfish. Their round-snouted faces, which looked as gentle and dim as a basset hound's until just a moment ago, have gone smeary with blood. When the goat rips in half, they split into two mobs over the severed halves and the tussling continues. They have each seized a mouthful but the mouthfuls are still held together, barely, by bone and sinew. They wrestle. They lunge for new jaw-grips and clamp down, straining greedily against the tensile limits of the mangled goat.
Much of Dodo is a long tale of complex ecological concepts woven together so that those explored in the beginning are introduced again later. Quammen's observations, historical and personal, are part text, part story. Some are humorous; some are tragic. Plan to read the book at least twice. You may want to start a notebook.
Then, when you finish reading The Song of the Dodo, you might want to take your children to a zoo or natural history museum to show them endangered and threatened animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians insects and plants. You may want to explain that some of these species probably won't be around when their children's children--your grandchildren--are adults. Some species may become extinct in your lifetime. None will ever evolve to fill the void left by extinction. There will be no new rhinos, elephants, grizzlies, gorillas, tigers or anything else.
According to island biogeographers, what islands are good at, whether surrounded by water, farmland or urbanization, is extinction. Parks and preserves just aren't large enough. Nowhere is large enough. You are living among tomorrow's dodos. Some are within a few miles of you.
The Song of the Dodo belongs on every true environmentalist's bookshelf, alongside Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac" and Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." It should be required reading in any college course that touches on the subject of environment. Quammen, who twice won the National Magazine Award for his writing in Outside magazine, deserves a far more prestigious award for this book.
(This book review first appeared as an article at http://www.suite101.com in the Environment section.)