The Flight of the Iguana by David Quammen

Posted: August 22, 2010 in Book Notes
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  • Xenophobia – fear or hatred of what is foreign or strange.


  • Earthworms therefore were not only creating the planet’s thin layer of fertile oil; they were also constantly turning it inside out.
  • On sloping land, where rainwater and wind would sweep their castings away and down into valleys, they were making huge contribution to erosion.
  • 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.

Amazon Fishes and Trees

  • Remove the trees, and you can expect the fish to disappear. Kill off the fish, and likewise some of those tree species (the ones that depend on fish for dispersing their seeds) may not survive. Contrary to common misconception, the soils from which grow the Amazon jungle are very poor, and the river draining those soils are also therefore infertile. So the fish that spend half their lives in those rivers depend utterly on the manna that falls in the forest, and on the floods that carry them to it.


  • According to Brownell, the scorpion orients itself toward the focus of any such disturbance by gauging the minuscule differences in the time at which the shock wave reaches each of its eight spraddled legs. Spaced apart, those legs serve as stereoscopic receptors. Take away the sensory input from one or two pairs of legs, or from all four legs along one side of the body, and the scorpion becomes confused. Disoriented…functionally blind.

Carnivorous Plants

  • Carnivorous plants have been driven to this extremity not by boldness and gluttony, but by shyness and starvation.
    • 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.
  • They have developed strategies for collecting animal protein because, in the nutrient-poor habitats to which they are exiled, on soils so inhospitable that few other plants deign to invade, without some dietary supplement they could scarcely survive.

Sex Determination

  • Genetic Sex Determination (GSD) is just a contingent fact, not a logical or biological necessity.
  • Females have a greater need than males do to reach breeding size quickly, because their allotted span of breeding years is much shorter.

Street Trees

  • They not only add their small touch of shade and beauty to the starkest troughs of the city; they also cut winds, absorb noise, reduce glare, mitigate the extremes of temperature, and help appreciable to filter the city air. But how do they themselves fare? What sort of existence is it, living sealed off from the recycling flow of every soil nutrient, robbed of direct sunlight by skyscrapers, poisoned with road salt and poodle piss, deprived each autumn of even their own  leaf mulch, choking on those various elaborate toxins of automobile exhaust?


  • Reality isn’t everything. Truth and certainty are fine, as far as they go, but truth and certainty don’t supply all the nourishment that the soul of our species seems to require.
  • We soon learn that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all proceeds from the usual propensity of mankind toward the marvelous, and that, though this inclination may at intervals receive a check from sense and learning, it can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature. – David Hume


  • Malay Archipelago, Guam
  • The history of life on islands reflects – in a heightened and simplified way – the entire evolutionary process.
  • Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure. – A.E. Houseman
  • Speciation proceeds more rapidly under island conditions.
  • Hard to reach but still harder to escape, an island is generally the last stop. Once a species has landed, and settled in, and transformed itself in response to the local requirement, it has nowhere to go but extinct.
  • Saying no to the inevitable is one of the few precious ways our own species redeems itself from oblivion – or at least tries to. For mortal creatures, on a slow-dying planet, in the ocean of space, there’s really no other option.


  • It is no accident that these anomalies are all native to islands, where necessity and opportunity can be so exceptional.
  • In truth, humanity’s role in destroying island species only accelerates (grossly and cataclysmically, yes) what is otherwise in some sense inevitable.
    • Island species come to an end, almost invariably, without ever rejoining the mainstream of evolution.
  • But then in the long run we are all goners, and the Earth itself is just another doomed biological island. It’s a truism that death and entropy await everybody, everything.


  • Hearing is the dominant sense among whales, far more important than sight or smell, for the very good reason that sound travel much better through water than do either light or chemical signals.
  • It blesseth him that gives. – Shakespeare
  • An act of mercy can unite strong beings and helpless being with a bond like no other: by making the very life of the helpless being into a shining emblem of the strong being’s decency, wisdom, restraint. In some cases it might even be habit-forming.


  • The stability of an ecosystem is directly related to its complexity. The greater number of species coexisting in one community, and the greater the number of relationships linking different species, so much greater will be the natural resistance to change, perturbation, catastrophe. From diversity comes strengths; from variety, steadiness.
  • Most of all, one shouldn’t intervene in these natural cycles, on the ever-precarious basis of good intention and incomplete knowledge.
  • No ecosystem is invulnerable. And no ecosystem is immune to disturbances of the magnitude that humankind often inflicts.
  • A strong exploitation of very mature ecosystems, like tropical forests or coral reefs, may produce total collapse of a rich organization. In such stable biotopes, nature is not prepared for a step backward. Man has to be very careful in dealing with systems of high maturity. – Ramon Margalef


  • The history of life on our planet is not only intriguing but beautiful, a miracle that belongs to everyone.
  • The past is not dead, is not gone, cannot ever be completely escaped or erased or forgotten; the past is.


  • Insufficient genetic options equals insufficient adaptability.
  • Greedy human impulse: the impulse, not only to admire the embodiment of beauty, but to capture and possess it.


  • The Earth’s living matter, air, oceans, and land surface form a complex system which can be seen as a single organism and which has the capacity to keep our planet a fit place for life.


  • Scenery is what you look at. Landscape is where you live and die.
  • People go off alone into wilderness (often a desert wilderness) for some stretch of time, to strip away those aspects of misguided worldly concern – “the social busyness”.

Wild Geese

  • They embody liberty, grace, and devotion, combining those three contradictory virtues with a seamless elegance that leaves us shamed and inspired.
  • Geese’ digestive system is damnably inefficient. Unlike other grazing herbivores, geese have no capacity to digest cellulose, which accounts for a large portion of plant tissue and holds the cellular juices (rich in sugar and protein) locked within cell walls.
    • Much of the potential nutriment consumed passes straight through the bird without being utilized.
  • Choosing one mate for life and remaining (with rare exception) faithful, geese have no need for such fancy displays or flashy dimorphic costumes. They put their resources to other uses. They spurn narcissism and fickleness and that annual flirtatious skirmishing, in favor of economy and a dignified singlemindedness.

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