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An analysis of the birds of North America


MacArthur and Wilson's formula
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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I think I can rightly claim that the basic findings were all in this early paper of mine which was published in 1941, except I didn’t express it in mathematical form which was done by McArthur and Wilson. The interesting or amusing thing is that when one really applies these formulae, these mathematical formulae of… of Wilson’s, you get to results that are very often contradicted by the facts. This was particularly true for the Hawaiian islands where the studies of Olson and… others shown that there was a large fauna that was… bird fauna… that was exterminated by the Polynesians when they occupied the Hawaiian islands, and this is not predicted at all by Wilson’s formulae, and the result was that… Storrs Olson published a paper in which he said that these findings completely refute the theory of island biogeography. Well, I don’t agree with that. It just refutes the mathematical formulae of McArthur and Wilson, while the purely descriptive aspect of this island biogeography of my 1930… 1941 paper – the turnover, the mixture of very old and ever more recent elements, the relation between island size and… and number of species, the relation between island size and percentage of endemics – all these basic facts are not refuted by the findings of Storrs Olson on the fossil birds of Hawaii, only the mathematical aspects of the McArthur and Wilson thing. Now, there was one other case, yes. There’s the famous island of Krakatoa which in 1883, so to speak, exploded as a volcano and exterminated the entire fauna and flora of the islands, that there were only ash piles left. And this island has, since 1883, now more than a hundred years, been re-occupied again… re-colonized first by plants and eventually by various animals, and finally by birds, and a final steady state size of the number of species on Krakatoa has now been established. McArthur and Wilson, on the basis of their mathematics, calculated what this ultimate size would be, and I calculated it on the basis of looking at other islands and… and various… without any… using any mathematics, how many species one would expect on an island of that size. And the final sum found by… by the latest reviewer found that my prediction is almost precisely correct, while the prediction based on mathematical formulae was way off.

The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.

Tags: 1941, Hawaii, Polynesians, 1930, Krakatoa, 1883, Edward Osborne Wilson, Robert MacArthur, Storrs L Olson

Duration: 3 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008