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on 17 November 2015
Well written and fascinating. It's self evident, if you think about it, that breaking up a habitat into small areas separated by roads, etc, means you can support fewer species of animals, especially large ones. As this is what humans typically do, we really need to understand how this works.
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on 17 May 2005
David Quammen can't tell us about the song of the dodo because it's a too late. The bird is extinct - they were all exterminated by 1690. Dodos were an island species - a big, flightless sort of pigeon. Sailors despised their apparent 'stupidity'. This stupidity or 'tameness', as we might also mistakenly think of it, is now recognised by modern naturalists as the naivety of animals that live on islands, which results from having no previous experience of predators. They didn't know they should avoid people or run away when approached, so it didn't take long to kill enough of them to ensure their extinction. Introduced species helped to bang the last few nails into the dodos' coffin lid. David Quammen could hardly have chosen a more symbolic creature than the dodo, for the title of his book on "island biogeography in an age of extinctions".

The author has a nice, laid-back writing style and has arranged some uncomfortable facts into an easy read. Here's an example. The voracious appetites of growing populations and industry put our natural environment under enormous pressure and cause habitats to be destroyed or divided into smaller and smaller pieces. So he asks us to imagine a fine Persian carpet - then to imagine it being chopped into pieces. What would happen? The edges would unravel and the bits that were left wouldn't be nearly so useful or so beautiful as the whole carpet had been. That's what happens to ecosystems when they're chopped into small pieces, like 'islands'. They unravel and decay. Island biogeography used to be just about proper islands - the sort that are surrounded by water - but it's now applicable to the islands scattered within continents. Continents have been criss-crossed by roads and rails, buried under cities, industrial estates, farms, quarries and so on, leaving tiny pockets of natural habitat isolated from other natural areas, like islands in a sea of agriculture or urban sprawl. From the point of view of the animals and vegetation that still manage to exist in these 'island' patches, the surrounding areas amount to a barren waste that cannot be crossed.

Quammen is understandably critical of the destructiveness of our species. He refers to the 'background' rate of extinction and the 'normal' rate of extinction, meaning: what the rate of extinction would be if it were not being driven by Homo sapiens. He says, for instance, it's estimated that the rate of extinction of birds and mammals alone, is about one hundred times the background level. And if that figure isn't staggering enough, he points out that Edward O Wilson's studies suggest the current loss of rainforest species, particularly invertebrates, is "at least a thousand times above normal". Quammen believes it would take this planet's ecosystems ten or perhaps even twenty million years to recover to previous high levels of diversity, if our species were to stop driving up extinction. He says that the difference between a normal extinction rate and the present human driven extinction rate is like the difference between having a pilot light permanently burning in the basement furnace and the house being on fire.

It's a big book (almost 700 pages), packed with interesting stories and information. There are ripping yarns (all true and documented!) about the intrepid chaps who started it all: Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. And there are stories of the scientists who are working on island biogeography today, that are just as hair raising. I recommend this book to everyone who's interested in natural history and the environment.
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on 2 June 1997
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 [...] in the Environment section.)
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on 16 September 2004
I read this book whilst on holiday in western France in 1992. It completely blew me away. Up until that point I never imagined that a book dealing with very complex scientific ideas could be so entertaining. The story is beautiful but heartbreaking, according to Quammen natural habitats have been so fractured and reduced on the mainlands of the world that new species of large land mammals will never again emerge. The story of evolution on island habitats is fascinating and large chunks of travel writing nicley break up the scientific discourse. All in all a remarkable book.
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on 26 March 1999
This is a near-perfect book for the layman in biogeography (like myself). It is a great mix of theory, history, interviews, accounts of the author's re-tracing of the steps of past and present biogeographers, and the author's tours of wildlife habitats and reserves. The author presents a fair treatment of the "never-to-be-resolved" issue of the true discoverer(s) of "the survival of the fittest/natural selection". I was only let down by the fact that I had finished reading the book (I just wish there was more to read) - but, there is more; a great glossary, a comprehensive bibliography, and a good index. I only wish that the fauna (98%) and flora (2%) presentations could have been more balanced, since I am a plant person. However, the subject matter is fascinating. This was a great read. I learned much of Wallace, Darwin, MacArthur, Edward Wilson, and the modern biogeographical thinkers. I enjoyed the descriptions of the explorations and tours of wildlife habitats. I highly recommend this book, both for adventure and for knowledge.
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on 12 February 2001
Discusses evolution and extinction on islands and equivalent geographically isolated areas eg lakes and, importantly, national parks. The theories are introduced through a mixture of personal anecdote, traveller's tales, biography and informal case studies and the whole thing is very entertaining and thought-provoking. The implications for the planning of parks and conservation areas provide a fitting conclusion to this excellent book.
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on 13 March 2017
A good book, with important points to make, but, boy, does he take his time over it. The book's central argument about island biodiversity could have been efficiently told in half the space, and there is so much padding about what a particular scientist was wearing and how they spoke and other not very interesting irrelevancies, that I found my interest fading. Bryson can get away with this, because he's a hugely entertaining writer: Quammen is not quite able to do the same. Nevertheless, there much of interest here, and I I'd recommend it. Just skip the 'Bob was a big man in brown suede shoes, with a laugh like molten lava spreading over a tray of cupcakes' passages.
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on 25 March 2004
This is certainly the most readable book on evolution and population biology I have come across. Takes a long time to read - at over 600 pages I must have taken 4 months to get through it but feel I have learnt more about the subject than I did in my uni days.
The conclusions of the book are frightening. We are living in a new paradigm where evolution for many of the bigger mammals and birds has effectively come to a halt. Extinct animals are not being replaced by new forms and habitat loss means there is little hope for many species.
Without a dramatic shift in the way we regard wilderness and our fellow beings in the animal world we are in for a lonely future.
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on 13 November 2002
The title sums it up - this is a song,both a lament and an ode to joy, singing the wonders of life as it has evolved on this planet. Quammen's love for his subjects bubbles up through the detail on every page - whether the collection of faeces (for scientific analysis, of course!) or the oddities of the creatures he encounters (and that does include some representatives of homo sapiens). His picture of evolutionary processes and the losses and gains that he chronicles are, like the dodo, both extraordinary and sorrowful and uplifting in turns. This is a book that is a treasure in itself, to keep and re-read, and recommend to anyone with an interest in life.
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on 17 April 1999
So simple in fact that before I read this I had no idea that there was such a word as biogeography. This book is about why different spicies live where they live, why they've evolved they way they have and where they may be going next. Helpfully it also brings up the people who developed the theories and how they did it. This helps with perspective as you realise that the author isn't just giving his opinion but working from a strong long standing knowledge base. A great book.
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