The Song of the Dodo
Reading Questions

One of my goals this year is to expose you to some of the best writing in biology today. It is not easy to write well, and it is not easy to write about scientific ideas in a way that is interesting to the general public. I am constantly reading magazines, journals, short essays, and books looking for the best that is out there. Even if you don’t love biology I hope you appreciate either the quality of the writing and/or the intellectual insights. If I am successful perhaps some of you will pursue reading more of the writings I excerpt for you.

For this assignment I would like you to read an excerpt from The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen (a science writer). It is simply one of the best books I have read in the last 10 years and it reads like a detective story. The excerpt I am having you read is from the first part of the book which sets up the story line of the book and begins by describing the travels and work of Alfred Wallace. Later the book pulls together the ideas developed in the beginning of the book to make an argument for the precarious situation we are now in with regards to the extinction of species on earth. It is simply riveting the way he pulls it all together. If you don’t believe me go check out the reader reviews at!

Please read the excerpt and then, on a separate piece of paper, answer the following questions.

1. What is meant by ecosystem decay and what metaphor does Quammen use to illustrate it?

2. What is the name of the “marginal field” of study which Quammen basis his book on to describe the scientific study of ecosystem decay? What do people study when they work in this “marginal field”.

3. Why, according to Quammen is the study of island biogeography, “full of cheap thrills”?

4. Which two men merged the study of biogeography and ecology into a mathematical science? What was the name of their very important book?

5. Why is the study of islands especially instructive for biologists?

6. The islands of Bali and Lombock are merely 20 miles apart from one another yet what remarkable things did Alfred Wallace discover about them? What later discovery explained Wallace’s observations?

7. According to Quammnen, “islands are inherently isolated”. What does this “inherent isolation” foster and why?

8. How did you like the reading? What did you like about it? What didn’t you like about it? Are you motivated to read the book? Would you recommend I have students read this excerpt next year?