The Tapir's Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest [Paperback] Review

The Tapir's Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest [Paperback]In a lake in Panama sits a six square mile island, Barro Colorado, and there are permanent research and living facilities there which have made the island one of the best-studied patches of rainforest in the world.A wonderful book, _The Tapir's Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them_ (Houghton Mifflin) memorably shows what the scientists are up to.Elizabeth Royte is a journalist, not a naturalist, but she was not just taking notes but taking part.She ingratiated herself into the society of strange eggheads who loved fieldwork by simply making herself available as an extra pair of untrained but willing hands.Because of this we get to follow her on all sorts of recondite forays to coax the jungle to give up its secrets.She follows spider monkeys in order to catch their feces, which she bags so that they can be analyzed for hormones.She climbs out branches to hang insect traps, and counts ants.She drives a Boston whaler zooming around the lake so that a biologist perilously hanging off the front can net migrating moths, and she learns to sex the moths by squeezing their thoraces.She triangulates to find out where bats fly around in the dark.She climbs trees to help monitor the behavior of creeping vines that modify the forest.At one point, a newcomer naturalist comes into Royte's room, mistakenly thinking she has found a fellow naturalist: "Oh, hi.Hi.Do you happen to have a syringe smaller than 1 cc?I'm trying to inject some solution into a butterfly's ear canal and what I have is way too big."Royte is excited about all these tasks, and her enthusiasm is on every page of her book.In addition, she has humorous descriptions of the men and women working on the island, but playing as well, with Ultimate Frisbee one of the least controversial amusements.But it is their work that makes the book.One of them explains that if he were intent on conservation, he'd be doing other work to promote it directly, and that he is attempting something like pure thought: "I'm setting up this experiment as an exercise in thinking. I don't want a utilitarian reason for everything. Why do we need art? I feel the same way about basic science: It's good for us."
Reading Royte's book is good for us, too.There is a wide array of scientific information presented here, and plenty of good humor, raconteurship, and insight into how science is done and what makes scientists do it.It is also a deeply personal document, as during the year Royte married (to someone back in the States), became pregnant, and found that her reflections on nature and on evolution were deepened by the embryo growing with her.This is a surprisingly moving book about scientific endeavor and the solving of puzzles within and puzzles without.

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