Monday, June 6, 2011

375. Book Review: Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America

By Kamran Nayeri, June 6, 2011

Review of Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata, New York: Touchstone, 1995

Last November, I spent 24 hours in La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica in the company of three friends who are biologists. Located in the Caribbean lowlands and bracketed by the Sarapiquí and Puerto Viejo Rivers, La Selva is covered with what is technically known as tropical pre-montane wet forest and more commonly referred to as rainforest.  There is no better place in Costa Rica to learn about this ever more endangered ecosystem. 

I was enchanted with the living beauty of La Selva.  Wherever we walked we came across multitudes of species—plants and animals—each with its own unique way of living.  Yet, each was part of the web of life that made Le Selva the magical place that it is. The sensuous experience of living however briefly in that surrounding changed me like no intellectual discourse ever has.  

After we returned to my friends’ home, Darrell Smith has often share his love of nature with me urged me to read Tropical Nature.  

Reading the book after visiting La Selva was it’s a magical journey. There is no doubt in my mind that Forsyth and Miyata (who drowned in Yellowstone while whitewater rafting before the book was published) wrote the book out of love for tropical rainforest.  As E. O. Wilson, the eminent biologist wrote about the book: “Tropical Nature is superior by the virtue of its freshness and authority… They write with the crispness of journalists sending dispatches from the field.”  Ernest Mayr, the eminent evolutionary theorist, writes that the book “combines excellent science, often based on original observations, with a warm sympathy for creatures big and small.” 


The book focuses on lowland rainforests of Central and South America and has 17 chapters and a brief introduction.  

Chapter 1, “In the realm of the Tropics,” describes the climate system in the rainforests of Central and South America.

Chapter 2, “Fertility,” addresses the question of how rainforest can support such abundance of life. While forests in temperate zones enjoy rich humus from the deep layers of deciduous leaf liter, rainforests relay on the root system of massive trees bound together by strands of fungal mycelia. The relationship, know as mycorrhizal associations, seems to operate in a similar fashion to lichens, a familiar temperate zone symbiosis between fungi and photosynthetic algae.  The photosynthetic trees provide important sources of energy and the non-photosynthetic fungi provide certain critical minerals, in particular phosphorus and potassium, often in short supply in the rain forest yet critical to growth of trees.

How death gives room to life is discussed in chapter 3, “Canyon of Lights” with a focus on the ecology of dying and falling trees.  Without it, not much new life and growth can happen inside a rainforest where sunlight is scarce. With it, multitude of new life emerges in the rainforest.

Chapter 4, “Hangers-On,” is a fascinating discussion of epiphytes that are hallmark of tropical rain forests.  They are the ferns, Mosses, orchids, bromeliads, cacti, and even trees that live suspended on other plants that make the luxuriance of a tropical rain forest. 

“Matapalo” (chapter 5) that is the local name for the strangler fig, offers a fascinating discussion of its ecology.

Chapters 6 and 7, “Listen to the Flowers” and “Eat Me,” throw light on the sexual life of tropical plants where the flowers and fruits respectively play a central part.

We routinely view plants as more passive than animals.  However, this is an artifact of our reliance on sight and sounds rather than on tastes and smells.  In fact, ever since the first herbivores appeared plants have waged chemical war for self-preservation. Chapter 8,  “Bugs and Drugs,” introduces the reader to this complex relationship in tropical forests.

“Creeping Socialists” is the title of Chapter 9 that deals with ants that constitute a large part of the animal biomass in many tropical forests.  By “socialism” the authors are referring to the social life-style of ants, vespid wasps, termites and many bees that seem particularly well suited to the New World tropics.  In chapter 10 the authors continue this discussion with a focus on the army ants.

When I was in Costa Rica, I saw owl butterflies and snake butterflies.  The patterns on their wings mimic birds’ predators to protect them from birds. Chapter 11, “Artful Guises,” is about this sort of camouflage employed by creatures throughout the rainforest. It is amazing to see how natural selection has produced such variety of disguises that help to protect or otherwise help the animal.  As the authors affirm: “It is not easy task to unravel the messages that the rain forest creatures hold in their appearances. Many things are not what they seem to be, and certain messages have different meanings to different receivers.” (p. 157)

In chapter 12, “Southbound,” the authors discuss migratory birds. Why a group of tropical forest birds take the trouble of migrating thousands of miles north to lay eggs when there is food available to them all year long in the rainforest.  A number of them do not make the fateful journey.

The answer is two folds and highly interesting. First, these are not tropical birds per se. Thus, some inhabitants of the rainforest are actually northern species.  Second, these birds prefer migration because the length of tropical days is rather constant during the year.  Summer days in the north are much longer and offer more feeding time for their young.

In Chapter 13, the authors discuss predation, competition, and mutualism by using the case of a colleague, Jerry, who inadvertently became host to a botfly maggot (Dermatobia hominis). 

You cannot go to Costa Rica and not see frogs and toads. Chapter 14, “Singing in the Rain,” is about them. Included in this chapter is the truly remarkable story of parental behavior of Dendrobates.  These frogs are forest floor dwellers. However, the female frog takes the trouble of carrying her tadpoles on her back to the top of tall trees where she deposit them in bromeliads tanks away from danger.  The mother frog returns frequently to visit the tadpoles to make sure they still have enough water in their pools and deposit non-fertile eggs to ensure they have an adequate food supply.

When in La Selva my biologist friends took me for a night walk. The authors characterize “a walk through tropical rain forest at night” as “a sensual journey.” This is no exaggeration. As the darkness grew in the forest the sounds we heard and the animals we saw changed. Walking in the dark in the rainforest is not without fear. Yet, it is rewarding in unbelievable array of sense pleasures that the visitor experiences; whether it is a sound that arises fear or curiosity or a sight that proves to be just spider’s eyes shining.

In Chapter 16, “The Eternal Tropics,” the authors discuss possible explanation of the amazing fact that in a tropical rainforest

“Virtually every tree you walk by will be different—they look alike near the ground, but they are distinct species—and high up in these trees you will see a huge variety of vines and epiphytes.  As you begin to notice animals, you will soon realize that almost everything you see is different. This, more than any iconic indicator species, characterizes the tropical rain forest environment. It is one of the ironies of tropical rain forest that common species are rare and rare species are common.” (p. 207)

Thus, the reader is offered a thoughtful discussion of speciation in light of Darwin’s evolutionary theory.


The final chapter 17, “Paradise Lost?” is an attempt to address the problem of deforestation and anthropogenic species extinction.  While people have lived in the lowland rainforests of the New World for well over 10,000 years, why our ruinous impact has accelerated tremendously during the last several decades?

The authors realize that “the conservation of tropical rain forests is as much a biological problem as it is a political and economic problem.” (p. 216).  They do indicate that deforestation began with commercial encroachment. They note that economic growth and population pressure have a direct impact on wild life habitat destruction; that demand from the industrial countries of the North is more damaging than those of local economies. However, they shrink from stating the obvious: that ecological sustainability of tropical rainforests is incompatible with our anthropocentric culture and the capitalist system

As a result, a beautifully written book that offers the reader a penetrating view of the magic of the web of life in the tropical rainforest ends with a plea—hesitantly, to be sure—to save the rainforest as a “resource.” 

Of course, it is truism that nature is resource for all living creatures.  Life evolved from inanimate nature and each creature depends on it and on other species for its survival. However, in the anthropocentric and capitalist context of today’s world, calling nature or any part of it a resource will reinforce rather than question these enemies of nature.

What is more in line with the letter and spirit of the Tropical Nature as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution is an ecocentric worldview that values the Earth and all life regardless of where they belong on the Tree of Life. A good summary of this perspective is the Deep Ecology Platform.  What is urgently needed is an ecosocialist transformation of human society on a global scale. Nothing less would do.

When we returned from La Selva to Antenas, we sat in my friends’ yard overlooking a valley and green mountains in a distance with great patches of deforestation. My friends had explained to me that in the 1970s the government encouraged cutting down the forests for pasture to raise cattle for McDonalds. 

The challenge to save the rainforest is more acute today than ever before and Tropical Nature is a necessary reading for anyone who wants to defend them not only by the mind but also from the heart. 

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