Tropical Nature

I can't say enough good things about Tropical Nature (Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata). I read it before going to Belize in 2010, and regretted at the time that it was all about Costa Rica — when would I ever be going there? Maybe in 2011!

My love for this book began with the chance encounter with Adrian Forsyth in the Barrow's conservation lecture series at the zoo, just after I'd purchased the book on-line (but hadn't read it yet). I hadn't put two-and-two together when I walked in on his lecture, but saw the book on the author's table after the talk. Ah ha!

When I got the book, and opened it, it was also the tragic death of author Ken Miyata that captured my attention: the book is dedicated to the memory of Ken Miyata, who died in Yellowstone, on a trout fishing expedition (drowned in a rapids). For the rest of my reading, it was my impulsive desire to figure out which author wrote which section (without being able to determine, in many cases). Argh! But I loved every section, so it was not really a problem….

My copy of the book is heavily annotated and highlighted, from reading it twice through before each EE. I haven't put my favorite quotes into a "book review" (as I hope to do one day). However I can point out a few highlights, because at the back of books I read these days I make a note of page numbers of favorite sections, and clues as to what caught my eye. So I'll at least post those:

I did a paper on gaps in tropical rainforest, and the following pages seemed particularly relevant:

  • p. 25 When a tree is cut…
  • p. 33 Treefalls common; process
  • p. 77 Great "Eat me!" quote from Lewis Carroll. "Well, I'll eat it," said Alice, "and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door: so either way I'll get into the garden, and I don't care which happens!"
  • p. 92 Plants that colonize treefalls
  • p. 166 William Blake: "To generalize is to be an idiot."
  • p. 197 "The top of Mount Everest is marine sandstone."
  • p. 198 central dogma of ecological theory: species can coexist in equilibrium only if they use different sets of resources.

Then this comment, from my notes:
A lot of effort in chapter 7 ("Eat me!") is dedicated to explaining complicated dynamics (e.g. "Highly obligatory dependencies court mutual extinction." p. 85). (Batesian mimicry, p. 133 — an unstable triangle)

Then there's the last paragraph in the book, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety: "Such extinctions are terrible, irretrievable losses. We must resist the coming of the dark age of biological simplicity that rain forest destruction will bring. Tinkering with the world is unavoidable. However, as Aldo Leopold once said, 'The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.'"

The first appendix, "Tropical Travel", is full of invaluable advice. I especially liked this advice: "You should drink large quantities of fluid whenever possible (beer is particularly good)…."

A comment to motivate my IAP (on climate change in Monteverde and La Selva) is this, from p. 202: "Minor shifts in temperature and rainfall can have a major effect on plants and animals unaccustomed to variable environments: a slight reduction in average annual rainfall or a slight change in the seasonality of this rainfall can have profound effects on rain forest vegetation."

The authors '…hope to show you that the diversity of a tropical forest is far more than a list of the plant and animal species that live there.' (p. 5) They do that, and much, much more. They give fascinating accounts, that stick with one. Who can forget the soldier ant being torn apart by genetic equals without putting up a fight? Who can forget the chapter on poop (I really wanted to try the experiment!).

As you might imagine, this book continues to influence me even after we're back (e.g. in my IAP). While the readings about the sites we would visit, etc. were useful, it was this book that I constantly came back to. Three thumbs up!;)

While I am enthusiastic about the book in the whole, there are certainly times when I disagree: for example, on p. 166, we have this: "These large, relatively clumsy beetles fall easy prey to birds and large lizards during the day, and perhaps they have become nocturnal to avoid such predation." Next to that, in the margin, I scream "'They have become nocturnal' — as though there's some conscious decision. No — those that attempt the diurnal lifestyle are preferentially predated, and don't survive — and reproduce — as well. A species is a shifting consequence of many other species, and doesn't have a static form — our human timescales make it seem so, but that's our limitation."

My Aunt Nelle read this book, upon my advice, and wrote "Read and appreciated by Aunt Nelle July 2011" in the cover. She also recommended that I read "The Lives of a Cell", by Lewis Thomas, which I subsequently did.

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