577: The Tapir’s Morning Bath by Elizabeth Royte

by Gerard

577.340972875: Royte, Elizabeth. The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest. Boston: Mariner, 2002. 323 pp. ISBN 0-618-25758-6.

Dewey Construction:

  • 500: Mathematics and Science
  • 570: Life Sciences
  • 577: Ecology
  • 577.3: Forest ecology
  • 577.34: Rain forest ecology
  • +0972875: Panama Canal

Every time the news media or a PSA talks about the environment and humankind’s ambivalence, the rain forest is used as an example. Untold thousands of acres of rain forest are destroyed each year and (the TV screen tells us) that has far-reaching effects on the planet. Elizabeth Royte’s The Tapir’s Morning Bath is a quest to find out what exactly the effects are.

Royte travels to Barro Colorado Island, home of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), an island in the middle of Gatun Lake, located in the Panama Canal. Founded in 1923 as a small field station, it has now become a Mecca of sorts for tropical research. Each year, hundreds of scientists from across the globe and from wildly different specializations come to island, each hoping to unveil another in a long line of small puzzle pieces that will, one day, improve our understanding of both the rain forest and ecology as a whole.

To get more integrated into the island culture, Royte offers up her services as an ad hoc field assistant to anyone who needs it, and in doing so, familiarizes herself (and the reader) with the broader points of ecology, biology, geochemistry, comparative anatomy, and many other branches of science. Her adventures includes counting and tagging spiny rats, learning about the leaf tent making abilities of certain bats, scouring the jungle for a pack of spider monkeys in order to collect their scat, and painstakingly collecting data from individual damaged leaves. Not only do the island’s fauna and flora invoke interest, but so do the scientists. Royte learns their habits, their proclivities, and their motivations in much same spirit as a Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey.

The book itself was incredibly interesting, as I am always excited by all things scientific (although the constant threat of mold growing on one’s clothes made me rethink visiting the tropics). While the intermittent whining about not being invited to the island bar in the beginning was both tiresome and slightly immature, the progression of Royte’s understanding of the tropics over the course of her stay was uniquely enlightening. Her discussions with both the long-term and seasonal residents of BCI help to reveal the history and the evolution of scientific thought.