ISLAND LIFE: A CATALOG OF THE BIODIVERSITY ON AND AROUND MARTHA’S VINEYARD. By Allan R. Keith and Stephen A. Spongberg. Published in cooperation with the Marine Biological Laboratories, Woods Hole, Mass. 2008.
A destination for naturalists long before it blossomed into a resort community, Martha’s Vineyard has inspired numerous checklists and natural history monographs over the years. Most of these projects have focused on one group of organisms: birds, butterflies or vascular plants, for example. Assimilating this existing work, Island Life, co-authored by two noted Chilmark naturalists, goes on to tackle an astonishingly ambitious task: “To provide inventories of life as it is known to occur . . . on Martha’s Vineyard.”
This project doesn’t extend, quite, to all life; there is no chapter on bacteria, for example, and many groups of insects have not received close enough study for inclusion. But from the vertebrates down to the plasmodial slime molds of the phylum myxomycota, most of it is here.
An introductory chapter summarizes the geological history of the Island, including its remarkable fossil record. Then, using a modern classification that may be unfamiliar to some readers, the authors devote chapters to each of four kingdoms of life (algae, fungi, plants, and animals). Each kingdom is described in a brief essay, and other essays, varying in length and complexity, introduce each phylum and many smaller taxonomic groupings. Within these sections, species known to have occurred on the Vineyard or in its waters are listed, generally with a brief note describing the status of each.
Even for a dedicated naturalist accustomed to the Island’s diversity, this book is an eye-opener. The list of copepod species (free-living and parasitic) goes on for pages; have you ever knowingly seen even one copepod? One seaweed family alone, chordariaceae, is represented by 23 species in Vineyard waters — and this is only one of 56 families of local seaweeds and algae treated here! I can’t decide which amazes me more: the sheer diversity of what lives here, how little of that diversity I actually know anything about, or how much effort researchers have put into studying our wildlife. (Not the least of the book’s virtues is its 30-page bibliography — a valuable compendium of previous Vineyard nature studies.)
Several conclusions emerge from a perusal of this book. First, the Island fully deserves its reputation for bountiful wildlife. Second, our geographic location accounts for much of that bounty (a surprising number of tropical fish, for example, presumably drifted here on eddies from the Gulf Stream). And third, many of the peculiarities of our resident wildlife can be explained by the Island’s history; we did, after all, begin as a biological clean slate only some 15,000 years ago, and this book does an excellent job of tracing the various waves of colonization that have added species here since retreating glaciers left rubble behind.
This book is more for reference than for sustained reading. I envision myself using it as a source for lists and figures, and as a way to narrow my focus to local possibilities when I’m trying to identify an unknown organism. But many of the essays are interesting and perfectly accessible to readers with no specialized training in biology. Mr. Spongberg, formerly the executive director of Polly Hill Arboretum, provides a thoughtful survey of the flora of the Vineyard, including its plant communities and its paradoxical affinities with regions both to the north and south. An insightful overview of Islands insects was supplied by Paul Goldstein, an entomologist known for decades of brilliant work on Vineyard moths. Norton Miller contributed an account of our mosses.
Remarkably, though, most of the book was written by principal author Allan Keith, who has spent more decades than it would be polite to mention studying nature on the Vineyard. Mr. Keith’s first and greatest passion is birds, but as with many modern birders, his interests have diversified over time, and he has generously shared his growing knowledge with others at every opportunity. So this project was a natural extension of Mr. Keith’s own intellectual development, and its completion represents a major accomplishment in an already distinguished amateur career.
A few formatting glitches and typographical errors persisted into the final version; authorial assumptions may occasionally be too apparent for some readers, and no doubt specialists will have quibbles about the inclusion, exclusion, or treatment of particular species. But with a project of this scale, such shortcomings are unavoidable and basically irrelevant: this volume assembles, organizes, and summarizes a mountain of information, and it represents a major contribution to our understanding of the ecological value of the Vineyard.
Island Life will serve as a catalyst and resource for conservation work, a reference book for anyone with an interest in what lives here, and, one hopes, as a stimulus for others, especially young people, to learn more about the natural wealth of this unusual Island.