When I wrote the book “Island Life,” which appeared in 1965, most of the species of plants and animals that exist on islands were known, but little was known about them. This generalization (to which exceptions can, of course, be found) was mainly the result of the fact that many of the world’s islands were remote places until travel by jet aircraft made access easy. The main centers for biological research were universities and museums located on continents. From such centers, biologists from time to time took advantage of expeditions to collect whatever they could in relatively brief visits to island areas. Collecting, often hastily, as time and logistics permitted, these collectors conveyed their specimens to home institutions where the collections were archived in cabinets and drawers. In due time, specialists in particular groups of organisms described the visible features of those organisms and gave the collections names. Many species of organisms found on islands were not found on continents and so a fascination with naming these newfound organisms as discoveries new to science developed. But the island organisms preserved in museums represented many fascinating evolutionary stories that were not, in most cases, recorded by those who collected specimens on islands.
The noteworthy exception was, of course, Darwin’s recording of the various finch species on the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos Islands are rather dry, so the flora and fauna are relatively simple, and easily observed. The birds of the Galapagos are mostly quite fearless and easily observed. Darwin did not see all of the Galapagos finches, nor did time permit him to observe and record more than a fraction of the interesting features of those finches he did see. But he saw enough of a pattern of adaptive radiation to show how evolution occurs on island areas. A fascinating and readily seen story, a good observer. However, while admiring the story of the Darwin’s Finches, we should notice how many marvelous stories of evolution on islands remained to be told by those who postdated Darwin.
One can say that islands are laboratories of evolution, but in saying this, one must add that each island has its own story based on time, location, and geology. These factors offer the matrix for the evolution of island organisms. In “Island Life,” I was saying, let’s go beyond the catalogs of what is on islands and tell the stories of the island organisms. This section of the website describes some of the topics I studied. The stories that others have told and are in the process of telling—I encourage you to find those and recognize the excellent work that has been done by many workers. The tools I used were rather simple ones. The simplicity of the methods and the conclusions I reached should encourage you to see how easily some discoveries in science can be made. Another clear implication is that many more studies remain to be done.