I've been meaning to write a review of this for a while
There are stacks of books all over my house. They colonise bare surfaces under their own volition. (Or possibly stuck to the legs of waterfowl*. Both ways are equally plausible.)
If I plotted the rate at which those books arrive on my coffee table and the rate at which they are read and shelved, I'm sure the results would be pretty close to Robert MacArthur and Ed Wilson's graph of their equilibrium model of island biogeography. You know the one, with the curves representing immigraton and …
If you aren't familiar with their graph, then I have just the book for you. (And even if you are familiar with it, there's still plenty to read in this.) It's right here on my desk, about to shift from the unread to read pile. The Loom of Life: Unravelling Ecosystems is an introduction to ecology. It's not a text book. Not in the strictest sense. But it is an excellent primer for anyone interested in getting a grip on this vast subject.
Evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen writes with great clarity and humour. He illustrates his topics — food webs, niches, guilds, biodiversity and so on — with fascinating examples. This is one of my favourites: Have you heard of Movile Cave in Romania? I hadn't. Discovered in 1986 by geologists who were charged with the job of finding a location for Ceaucescu's new power station, the cavern turned out to be a wholly self-contained ecosystem, sealed off from the rest of the world by almost twenty metres of solid limestone and a shedload of clay.
In this enclosed world-ette, bacteria play the role taken on by plants at the surface — transforming inorganic carbon into organic molecules within their cells. (Where it becomes available as nosh for those who can't manufacture their own food.) For plants, the carbon comes from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the energy from sunlight. For the Movile bacteria, carbon comes from dissolved limestone in the cave's pools and the energy from the toxic chemical hydrogen sulphide. (It's a weird world-ette. Even weirder than hydrothermal vents and cold seeps in the ocean. No offfence intended, Deep Sea News.) These carbon-crunching, rotten-egg gas-munching bacteria form the basis of the food chain in the self-sufficient cave ecosystem — and provide an intriguing introduction to energy flow, niches and the whole ecological kit and kaboodle.
Alongside these vignettes are character sketches of ecologists involved in unravelling ecosystems. (At least, in mapping their patterns.) The chapter on island biogeography (In Splendid Isolation), which stars Wilson, MacArthur and Daniel Simberloff is a gem. Even though I can't believe they haven't turned their gargantuan brains towards the science of biblioecology.
I enjoyed it. It's informative. It's entertaining. It has shameless puns. What more could you ask of a book on ecology?
Schilthuizen, M. (2008) The Loom of Life: Unravelling Ecosystems. Springer.
* Apologies if I've used that joke before.