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

David Quammen

Hutchinson 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997
Dodos and extinctions are dinner-party topics, but island biogeography sounds like the domain of academic monographs. In Song of the Dodo Quammen writes about the popular topics for a popular audience, but sneaks in some real science on the sly. He offers a mix of travel narrative, natural history, and biography — and highlights the significance of islands in the geographical distribution of species around the planet.

Quammen begins with the role biogeography played in the origins of evolutionary theory, following Alfred Russel Wallace on his expeditions around the Malay Archipelago. He then explores the "signature features" of island species and communities (such as dispersal ability, size change, and adaptive radiation), using as examples iguanas in the Galapagos, lemurs in Madagascar, Komodo dragons, and lizards on islands in the Gulf of California, among others. Turning to extinction events, he writes about some of the more famous: the dodo, the Tasmanian tiger, the passenger pigeon, the invasion of Guam by the brown tree snake, and the genocide of the Tasmanian Aborigines.

Quammen next introduces the species-area relationship, with one of the few equations in the book giving the number of species as proportional to the square of the area. This is the lead in to a sympathetic and insightful sketch of the history of quantitative ecology, focused on Wilson and MacArthur and the publication of The Theory of Island Biogeography.

One obvious application of biogeography is to conservation management issues, which is where Quammen turns next. He looks at both sides of the "single large or several small" debate, over the most effective sizing for nature reserves, and at attempts to decide it experimentally in the Amazonian rainforest. He also writes about the saving of the Mauritius kestrel, the conservation of muriqui monkeys in Brazil, and the effects of dam-building on the Concho water snake. The Song of the Dodo ends where it began, with Quammen following in Wallace's footsteps around the Aru Islands.

In many ways Quammen's style is like that of a television documentary, with fairly abrupt jumps between short segments. Great care is taken never to lose the reader's attention: the focus is on large, "interesting" animals rather than plants or invertebrates and "human interest" is provided throughout. But at the same time nothing he touches on detracts from the balance and unity of the work. Personal anecdotes, descriptions of scientists, historical digressions, zoological detail — all are interesting in their own right, but they also contribute to the broader attempt to explain the central ideas and applications of a scientific discipline and to convey a feel for its history and practice. The Song of the Dodo is a superb synthesis.

The Song of the Dodo has a glossary but no footnotes or references, which makes the inclusion of an extensive full bibliography a bit strange — a select "further reading" list would have been far more appropriate. There is a good collection of maps but no illustrations — and if ever a book cried out for them, this one did! If it hasn't been done already, someone should produce a companion book of photographs, if not a television series.

November 1997

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%T The Song of the Dodo
%S Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions
%A Quammen, David
%I Hutchinson
%D 1996
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0091801966
%P 702pp