Book Reviews, Non-fiction

David Quammen’s the Flight of the Iguana (1988)

The Flight of the Iguana is a fantastic collection of 29 essays, written by David Quammen for Outside magazine between 1984 and 1987. Some of them are, at this point, dated by modern research, but Quammen is a fantastic natural science writer, whose skill at presenting complex ecological concepts to layreaders is perhaps paralleled by only John McPhee, Rachel Carson, or Robert Sapolsky.

The essays are all quite short – they’re written for magazine, after all — making this a very accessible read. Most explore biogeography, ecology, and biology within the US, but he also digs into political and social issues (e.g., the Sanctuary Movement of the ‘80s that helped refugees flee the corrupt government and death squads of president Duarte), as well the lives of individual researchers, literary figures, and friends who tie into his experiences or stories.

The best essays, I think, reflect topics of biogeography specifically. You can tell Quammen was having the most fun diving into that topic, which led to him spending 10 years compiling the Song of the Dodo — one of the most sharp and accessible layscience books available today, and which inspired me to shift from geology to biogeography in my own research.

Above all others, I recommend his later tome on biogeography, the Song of the Dodo, but this is an engrossing – if dated – supplement for those craving wonderful introductions to many of the ignored stories of ecological science and social justice.


Present-day photo of Quammen looking quite the part of a scientist with globes and bugs.
1. ‘The Face of the Spider’
Keywords: Black Widow, Personal, Southwest, Spiders

Our need to be mindful of other species — particularly those uglier ones disconnected by too many genetic differences — before acting out rashly. We don’t have to have live the way of ahimsa, he says, but just be a little more aware of our actions and how they affect the rest of the world.

2. ‘Thinking About Earthworms’
Keywords: Darwin, Earthworms, Philosophy of Science

“Think about the formation of vegetable mould, and the relentless swallowing, digesting, burrowing, and casting off of waste by which earthworms topple and bury the monuments of defunct civilizations while freshening the soil for new growth. Think about how sometimes it’s the little things that turn the world inside out.”

Late in his life, Darwin turned his attention to the importance of earthworms in maintaining soil quality. His final book and its ideas revolutionized soil science…and inspired this essay.
3. ‘The Thing with the Features’
Keywords: Archaeopteryx, Dinosaurs, Evolution, Paleontology

quammen_tfoti_archaeopteryxA dated look at the heated debates that have raged for a century and a half in paleontology, and how those have evolved ever so slowly with time. Archaeopteryx is the subject of discussion; whether dinosaurs were cold-blooded or warm-; &c.

4. ‘Nasty Habits’
Keywords: Creationism, Entomology, Evolution, Pseudoscience, Sex

The imperfect mating habits of bedbugs, and how those might distract from the better creationist myths. Males stab and rape females, injecting sperm into females’ guts before gluing the wounds shut. Yeugh.

5. ‘Stalking the Gentle Piranha’
Keywords: Amazon, Ecology, Floods, Trophic Cascades

In the Amazon lowlands, the ‘productive’ reconfiguring of the landscape to suit embarrassingly-poor farming standards is initiating a bottom-up cascade through the food chain, ultimately working its ignorant will to kill off numerous fish species essential to the survival of the ecoregion — and local human communities, including those very farmers starting it all.

6. ‘See No Evil’
Keywords: Entomology, Evolution, Personal, Scorpions, Southwest

Hearkens back to Quammen’s life in Tucson, AZ, and the sheer commonality of scorpions — scary critters with too many limbs and too many eyes and too much poison. Discusses latest (circa 1985) biology research on why scorpions are the way they are.

7. ‘Turnabout’
Keywords: Carnivorous Plants, Darwin, Evolution

On the biology of carnivorous plants, back to Darwin’s obsession with them, and why they evolved to do this very un-plant-like behavior:

“Meat-eating is the last resort of the shy, uncompetitive plant. Those carnivorous species have removed themselves evolutionarily from the ruthless competition of the thicket, the forest, from all those fecund and clamorous places where plants flourish in wild vigor and variety, battling each other upon nutritious substrata for position and water and sunlight. The Venus’s flytrap and those few others have taken a more gentle path.”

8. ‘The Selfhood of a Spoon Worm’
Keywords: Entomology, Evolution, Sex Determination

Explores how Environmental Sex Determination (ESD) is effected in different species, from the gross little spoon worm, to the Southeastern US’ alligator population. First recorded in 1911, ESD was being recognized and discussed in biology circles far more during the ’80s.

(An alligator’s sex is evidently determined or largely influenced by whether the nest is located in a cooler, wetter location, or a warmer, drier location. Cooler than 86°F, female; warmer than 93°F, male; range between garners a mix.)

9. ‘The Descent of the Dog’
Keywords: Animal Domestication, Anthropology, Dogs, Natural Selection

Looks at the lineage of the modern doggy companion, and how / why exactly dogs became domesticated (and, specifically, where they picked up their more annoying vocal habits their wild counterparts don’t possess). The hypotheses are quite surprising, though with how common dog research is today, I suspect some ideas in this essay are now quite outdated. (E.g., Quammen dismisses the density of housecat populations in favor of dogs being more environmentally-damaging. We now estimate our desire for pet cats — with their taste for playful murder — is responsible for the extinctions of hundreds of bird species right under our noses.)

10. ‘Street Trees’
Keywords: History, Landscape Architecture, Pollution, Tree Growth

Quammen ponders the unlikely life of street trees. Not park trees — no, the lonely, sad trees that line city streets, separated by some calculated, repeated distance. This quirk of landscape architecture has a short lifespan, dating to an early gardener of Versailles, and later Paris and Washington and from there: The World. Street trees are one of those unusual blind spots that we, as city-folk, need in our lines of sight, despite the abuse we throw upon them from noxious fumes and liquids (including hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic dog urine on a daily basis!). Fascinating read, and quite relevant to our current approach to green cities.

11. ‘The Ontological Giraffe’
Keywords: Cryptozoology, Okapi, Personal
The earliest drawings (1901) of the okapi, as seen by the intruding eyes of a Westerner.

“What’s the biggest mammal you’ve never heard of?” So asks a longtime friend of Quammen’s. The answer was intended to be the okapi, made recently famous through well-publicized genetic testing as one of the few giraffe species — and easily the weirdest in appearance. Quammen ponders over this chimera of a beast, which was closer to myth when the article was written. The essay, really, is more about Quammen and his friend than biogeography. Not great.


12. ‘The Lonesome Ape’
Keywords: Anthropology, Evolution, Paleontology
The fragments of the Sivapithecus skull under discussion.

Quammen translates the now-dated discussions of anthropologists and biologists on the origins of the Sivapithecus hominid, and whether it’s a closer relative to humans or orangutans.


13. ‘Stranger Than Truth’
Keywords: Cryptozoology, Evolution, History, Okapi

On the need for cryptozoology, when we really should know better. Why look for living myths, when there are millions of undiscovered species out there right in front of us? Probably because it’s fun. One never would have guessed there was a peer-reviewed journal for cryptozoology where researchers measure Bigfoot prints. This essay is also covers the okapi better than the essay about the okapi.

The okapi as real living beings, not cryptozoological monsters.
14. ‘Deep Thoughts’
Keywords: Geology, History, Meteors, USSR, Tunguska
The Kola Borehole as it exists today: Covered and forgotten.

An essay on holes. All sorts of holes. Mostly, though, we look at two Russian holes: The Kola borehole (now lovingly advertised as the Kola Superdeep Borehole™, a 7.5 mile-deep (22 miles at time of closure in 2008) hole of minor scientific interest even to geologists; and the Tunguska impact site, a hole-without-a-hole of mysterious origin (most likely an exploding meteor, though imaginations were more wild when the article was written) that left thousands of km of forest toppled in 1908 Siberia. Holes, holes, holes.


15. ‘Island Getaway’
Keywords: Evolution, Guam, Invasive Species, Island Biogeography
Arguably Quammen’s masterpiece, the Song of the Dodo is one-stop textbook on biogeography and ecology.

Introduces concepts of island biogeography with Guam’s disappearing bird populations as an example. An unknown cause had Guam’s bird species disappearing at an alarming rate for decades, with hot topics like pesticides suspected as the culprit. A graduate student in 1982, however, discovered that a single invasive snake species (introduced to the island by people, of course) was to blame. The island’s bird species were all adapted specifically to the island, meaning they suffered behavioral naiveté when it came to B. irregularis‘ hunting habits. A thoroughly wonderful essay: You can see how starry-eyed Quammen was with the subject, which he later adapted into a section of his the Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction.

16. ‘Talk is Cheap’
Keywords: Animal Abuse, Chimpanzees, Evolution, Philosophy of Science, Psychology,

“Whatever happened to Washoe the chimp?” A simple question with a painful answer. In the ’60s and ’70s (and I remember this a bit from when I was a kid, watching movies like Born to Be Wild), there was an explosion of questions being asked about person-hood, and how we should morally treat other animals who show a great measure of empathy. Specifically, this was a reaction to the publicized educations of chimpanzees (Washoe, Ally, Nim, &c.), and how chimpanzees were able to have meaningful relationships with humans, showing even enough compassion to risk their own lives to save others.

Washoe with her adopted baby, Loulis.

By the mid-’80s, people had lost interest in these questions. The fad was over. Nim Chimpsky, in particular, seemed to have failed replicating these experiments (thanks, we can fathom, to the absolute neglect the 60+ scientific researchers showed Nim, and the animal abuse he experienced in the name of cartoonishly cold and neglectful logic — an answer so obvious, it’s a wonder none of those scientists stopped to consider the biases they were directly introducing in order to write the results they wanted). All the test subjects were sold off to product-testing labs or disappeared into breeding farms. This includes those who were selectively ‘saved’ from groups of similarly-mistreated chimpanzees simply due to name recognition. Wow.

A fascinating read that had me wondering why this question of animal ethics — a question that seemed so important when I was a kid — just kinda vanished into Who-cares?-ville in recent decades. Why isn’t this still a big deal, when the results should have effected a paradigm shift?

17. ‘Icebreaker’
Keywords: Animal Abuse, History, Politics, USSR, Whaling

In 1985, roughly 100 beluga whales found themselves trapped by ice in a small strait off the coast of Russia. The USSR gave a peculiar order to spend the equivalent of $80,000 on saving these whales from starvation or suffocation. A peculiar act of mercy given Russia’s reliance on the whaling industry. Quammen found himself asking why, and sought answers with Russian embassies all over the US. Unfortunately, it was on the eve of President Chernenko’s death, so no one was forthcoming. Quammen had a deadline, so, also unfortunately, we’re left to wonder whether Russia was perhaps reacting to the social (and sometimes by-law) moratorium on beluga whale hunting (due to high toxins in their flesh, brought to you by humans, of course), or if they just wanted to perform an act of kindness.

The literary side vouches for the Shakespearean call to empathy; the realistic side suggests the former more likely. An interesting essay, but (obviously) a bit dated in its politics: In framing the USSR exclusively around negatives with the possibility of redemption, there’s an underlying sense that the US doesn’t fall to the same bloodthirsty preference for economic wealth over environmental health. Which, of course, we do.

18. ‘Agony in the Garden’
Keywords: Biogeography, Corral Reefs, Human Impact, Invasive Species, Starfish
Acanthaster planci, or, the crown-of-thorns starfish

Documents the ‘plague’ of Acanthaster planci, or crown-of-thorns starfish, that were thought to be decimating the world’s coral reef ecosystemsbetween the 1960s-1980s. Another wonderful essay on biogeography and predator-prey relations, however dated by the subject. While there’s still some mystery surrounding these ‘plagues,’ the fear the essay takes part in has since given way with a tighter understanding of the starfish’s role in the ecosystem. That is: The destruction didn’t come from the starfish; the massive outbreaks ended in the ’80s.

19. ‘The Poseidon Shales’
Keywords: Dinosaurs, Geology, History, Lagerstätten, Paleontology

Quammen takes a trip to Germany’s Hauff Museum, a family-owned museum dedicated to the fossils of nearby Lagerstätten shale that dates to the 19th century. The local shales themselves were once the bed of an intercontinental sea through Europe ~135-190 mya, and are known primarily for exhibiting ichthyosaur fossils. Most of the essay oscillates between the museum’s history, and then-current paleontology on the exhibits. An interesting essay not held back by the outdated science one typically expects of older paleontology research.

From the Hauff Museum, a stunning example of their Laggerstätten, showing an unimaginable number of well-preserved crinoids.
20. ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’
Keywords: Cheetahs, Genetic Diversity, Human Impact, Island Biogeography, Species Fitness

The world’s cheetah populations suffer some of the lowest genetic diversity seen in high-profile mammals. I was aware of genetic oddballs like the Florida panther, and America’s grizzly populations, but I had never heard of the cheetahs suffering such a similar fate over such a great landmass. It does make sense, given solitary cat species — especially of the cheetah’s size — need an exorbitant amount of territory compared to pack animals like wolves (which also suffer, regardless, due to human encroachment, a history of extirpation and distaste, building of roads networking every which way, etc.). Quammen picks apart human history and how our historical interactions with cheetahs may have pushed the populations particularly hard on breeding capabilities. Specifically, he ponders, did the strong desire for hundreds, even thousands, of pet cheetahs as hunting tools by long-lost warlords / emperors / what-have-yous rush us towards the low species fitness we see today? It probably didn’t help.

This topic has very recently — Dec. 2016 — been revived in the popular press, as more recent research has reiterated the poor health of cheetah populations.

21. ‘Provide, Provide’
Keywords: Counterculture, Gaia, Philosophy of Science, Pseudoscience

Quammen explains Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis — that the Earth is a living being (however dubious his wording) that will be shrug off, over geologic time, whatever damage we could ever possibly inflict on it, returning to a state of ‘natural balance’ — and clearly isn’t much interested by it. (And he shouldn’t be.) It’s the hippie’s attempt at a Grand Unified Theory, if he was a devout Christian with apocalyptic dreams.

22. ‘The Flight of the Iguana’
Keywords: Darwin, Evolution, Galapagos, History, Island Biogeography, Natural Selection
The paperback edition of the Flight of the Iguana.

This essay is why David Quammen is considered among the best natural science writers today. Like many of his essays, he writes about sides of nature that we don’t often talk about. He’s touring the Galapagos Islands — yes, expected — but the subject isn’t Darwin’s finches, or the Galapagos tortoises (although they do get their say). It’s the Amblyrhynchus cristatus, or marine iguana, that Quammen cares about. During Darwin’s Beagle voyage, one of his observations of natural selection involved making these iguanas fly: The iguanas, being — in the island way of things — unfamiliar with terrestrial predators, had no fear of Darwin, even as he repeatedly tossed the critters into the ocean. They always came right back to him, because it’s the ocean that their instincts call dangerous, not the land — not, unfortunately, people.

Like Quammen’s best essays, ‘the Flight of the Iguana’ is all about biogeography and the people who defined biogeography. Quammen deftly explains how Darwin, and then Joseph Hooker, discovered the habits of evolution in forming island species (“impoverishment, disharmony, dispersal ability, loss of dispersal ability, size change, and extinction”), while himself sitting on the Galapagos beaches with his cadre of uncaring marine iguanas, wishing very much he could repeat Darwin’s experiment without being arrested. The Galapagos islands, by the by, are not so unique among islands, so its special treatment is more a result of culture, not ecology. (The argument should be, however, that all islands and all biodiversity deserve the good will we attempt in the Galapagos. I say ‘attempt’ because in saving the Galapagos islands, we’re also introducing ecological disasters through eco-tourism. Go us.)

23. ‘The Beaded Lizard’
Keywords: El Salvador, Guatemala, History, Politics, Sanctuary Movement, Southwest

A heartbreaking, personal story of the underground railroad of the 1980s, providing (or attempting to provide) sanctuary to El Salvador’s and Guatemala’s refugees. Quammen uses the Heloderma suspectum as a sort of metaphor for the refugees and their transporters, as their made to hide in plain sight in the desert, just out of view of border patrol and locals. It’s a weak metaphor, and Quammen doesn’t make much use of it for that very reason; this essay isn’t about natural history so much as human history, and the victims of El Salvador’s president, José Napoleón Duarte.

Due to political allegiances with the US government, refugees attempting to escape Duarte’s death squads were deemed illegal aliens by the US government, and promptly deported to face execution by Duarte’s government. Those assisting in their sanctuary — almost exclusively religious groups — were also arrested for smuggling people into the country. It’s a disturbing story that history books tend to brush over or only give the most nebulous of nods, and Quammen tells it wonderfully: He’s on the ground, assisting in the transportation of refugees over the Arizona border. Unfortunately, it’s not tied into the natural sciences very well, making its inclusion somewhat out-of-place.

24. ‘Drinking the Desert Juices’
Keywords: Health, History, Native American, Social Justice, Southwest

Quammen gives attention to the Papago tribe of southern Arizona, and their rich history of getting the most out of a seemingly inhospitable geography. Since the ‘gift’ of tribal lands, the incidence of obesity and diabetes has soared among Native Americans. At the time of writing, more than half of the Papago tribe was diagnosed with diabetes. Quammen writes about their disappearing culture, the methods and foods they found success with, and possible causes of the current health issues.

More recent research (see: Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers), I believe, ties the health problems of Native Americans into both of the hypotheses Quammen describes: A genetic inability to process the sugar-filled foods brought by European settlers, and the unhealthiness of our store-bought food in general. (It’s also estimated that these genes died out in at least European and African lines during the 17th or 18th centuries, as diets turned more to sugars.)

25. ‘The Desert is a Mnemonic Device’
Keywords: El Salvador, Guatemala, History, Politics, Sanctuary Movement, Southwest

A sequel to ‘the Beaded Lizard’ and written two years later, Quammen continues to forego his usual biogeography and ecology writings to discuss, as he terms, our ‘moral ecology.’ John Fife, co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement, was just found guilty in a, by all accounts, rigged trial. (The defense’s use of evidence was, at the start of the trial, limited beyond reason, and no defense was ultimately provided.) He writes,

“If you flee to the U.S. from a regime in disfavor with Washington [i.e., the USSR], your chances of being officially welcomed are much better than if you flee from one of Washington’s clients. Thus denied almost all chance of asylum, denied even temporary exemption…from deportation, Salvadorans and Guatemalans have no legal protection in the one country on Earth that prides itself most stentorianly as a haven for refugees.”

Indeed, the Department of Justice steadfastly refused to recognize the migrants — who’s only interest in coming to the US was as a necessity to avoid rape, torture, and eventual execution at the hands of the government’s military or Duarte’s death squads — as refugees under the Refugee Act of 1980, instead labeling them ‘economic migrants.’ On the ecology side of things, we also revisit another name from ‘the Beaded Lizard,’ Jim Corbett, edging into his personality and the peculiar philosophy of goatwalking he advocates for living peacefully with the Sonoran Desert.

Jim Corbett, one of the Tucson subjects of the Sanctuary Movement, did eventually publish his philosophical treatise on ‘goatwalking.’
26. ‘The Miracle of the Geese’
Keywords: Evolution, Geese, Migrations, Sex

Geese live unexpected love lives: They, like (most of) us, live monogamously. Instead of expelling their genes in the widest pool, seeking new mate year after year, they choose a single mate whom they devote their entire lives to. Why? Well, one possible answer is the goose’s energy expenditure. Their need to maintain careful control of their weight to match environmental conditions on their flights north and south; they digest food in a measly two hours, taking barely any of the nutrients their bodies need; they must constantly eat to combat both of these disadvantages. Any unnecessary expense of energy, like towards finding a new mate year after year, would very likely increase the risk of death.

27. ‘Swamp Odyssey’
Keywords: Alligators, History, Personal, Southeast, Swamp

Reuniting with his childhood friend, Quammen (and a guide named Crawfish) takes us on a tour of the Okefenokee Swamp in an obscure corner of Georgia. It’s an immensely personal essay, largely filled with stories of the ’60s, of he and his friend’s (and his guide’s) objections towards the Vietnam War, his affair with academia, their early careers and love lives — and a wealth of stories on Crawfish’s innumerable injuries. It’s the closest Quammen gets to echoing Leopold, and it’s a warm essay for all the personal stories, but it’s also a bit difficult to keep track of the Okefenokee Swamp’s history and many inhabitants underneath it all.

28. ‘The Siphuncle’
Keywords: Ammonoids, Evolution, Faulkner, Nautiloids, Paleontology, Personal

Faulkner and the nautiloids are brought together by a shared theme: History. The nautilus (and related spp., mostly extinct) secrete additional chambers into their shells as they age, and to move at extreme depths, they balance gas and water between chambers using a siphuncle. Faulkner’s central theme often turn towards the inability to escape history; that the past, good and bad, always resurface to direct our lives. A fun essay for myself, however pretentious (and boy, is that connection pretentious), as during my undergraduate days, I both obsessed over Faulkner and worked in paleontology labs handling Devonian nautiloids. Pretentious, but fun.

29. ‘The Same River Twice’
Keywords: Ecology, Fishing, Montana, Personal

Another very personal essay, as Quammen writes about the roots of his love affair with Montana. An avid flyfisherman, this essay is all about the seasonal changes to the local river and more obscure stenothermal creeks. He reflects on his years living with friends somewhat carelessly, devoting his time to literature and fishing and arguing about both — and how the environment has changed since he left. It’s all very Norman Maclean, and a nice end to the collection.

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