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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One good thing about finishing your PhD and then going into COVID-19 lockdown is that you suddenly find a lot of time to read. This meant I finally finished the Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. Like many others who have finished this tome, I feel I deserve a fanfare.

This book has been on my to-read list since 2016. I have picked it up multiple times, and I have put it back down again, forgetting about it for ages. Starting over. Now that I’ve finally finished it, I’m not sure why it took me so long. Yes, it’s a long book. 625 pages, if you don’t count the glossary, author’s notes, acknowledgements etc., which bring it to 702. But it’s full of interesting content, even if it does get a little length at times.

I was first asked to read it for a biogeography class and if you’re interested in biogeography, especially island biogeography, this is probably the best book you will ever read.

Perhaps one of my favourite things about this book, not counting the easy introduction to concepts such as species-area relationships, viable populations and the SLOSS (single large or several small) debate, is that Quammen gives a unique insight into the lives of scientists. The passion that makes a scientist chase after monkeys to catch their poo. The hurt a scientist can feel when their study area is destroyed in the name of progress. The politics they can be faced with, and sometimes the drama that can arise when scientists disagree.

The book contains a lot of information. You may not find all of it equally interesting, but I couldn’t tell you any parts that you might consider skipping. When Quammen talks about his personal travels in the footsteps of naturalists such as Alfred Russell Wallace, you feel closer to the story. Do we need the part where Quammen relates his experience of being mugged? It doesn’t tell us much about island biogeography, but it tells us something about situations scientists, explorers and journalists can get themselves into when pursuing their passions.

This book could easily be a textbook, but it’s way more enjoyable. It makes you want to explore and travel, see these wonderful places and animals before they are gone. I will probably not read the entire thing again, but I will most likely return to some of my favourite sections.

If I loved it so much, why don’t I give it five stars? Because of the length. During normal times, I’m not sure I would have had the discipline to finish it. This may not be Quammen’s fault, but my own. I am too easily distracted and usually read multiple books at the same time.

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