The Tapir's Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest

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9780618257584: The Tapir's Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest
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An engaging portrait of a community of biologists, The Tapir's Morning Bath is a behind-the-scenes account of life at a tropical research station that "conveys the uncertainties, frustrations, and joys of [scientific] field work" (Science). On Panama's Barro Colorado Island, Elizabeth Royte works alongside the scientists -- counting seeds, sorting insects, collecting monkey dung, radiotracking fruit bats -- as they struggle to parse the intricate workings of the tropical rain forest. While showing the human side of the scientists at work, Royte explores the tensions between the slow pace of basic research and the reality of a world that may not have time to wait for answers.

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About the Author:

Elizabeth Royte is a contributing writer for Outside magazine. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, National Geographic, Smithsonian, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
The Lab in the Jungle

Gatun lake, the enormous midsection of the Panama Canal, sprawls for
thirty-seven kilometers around peninsulas of land, between fragments
of drowned mountains, and over the Continental Divide. Oceangoing
vessels slice through the canal and shudder into steel locks that
close and open almost silently. The lake"s shoreline is wildly
irregular, and its waters are as green as the sea.
Impenetrable forest flanks the canal. Toucans screech from
low branches, and monkeys leap from tree to tree. Iridescent blue
butterflies as large as teacup saucers flit along the shore. Inside
the forest, a dark tangle of creeping vines and fringed palms battles
to reach the sunlight. Here, where two continents meet and the waters
of two vast oceans lap against the lake, lies a teeming cornucopia of
life at its competitive extreme, a place like few others on Earth.
From a spot near the middle of Gatun Lake, opposite a
deserted village called Frijoles, Barro Colorado Island rises
steeply. Its muddy red banks appear jumbled, its interior black.
Isolated by the rising waters of the Chagres River, which was dammed
in 1910 to form the canal, Barro Colorado had been the highest point
on the Loma de Palenquilla ridge. Now the ridge is gone, and Barro
Colorado"s peninsulas and uplifts sprawl over 1,564 hectares, or six
square miles; its summit rises 119 meters above the lake"s surface.
From where I stood on the deck of the island"s launch as it
chugged through the shipping channel, I didn"t see Barro Colorado
until we were nearly upon it. Then, just before the place where the
canal arcs into Bohio Reach, I spotted several red and green channel
markers leading into a small cove. A swimming raft floated there.
Looking up, I caught a glimpse of tin-roofed dormitories set into the
fringed hillside. Emerging from the background of green was a flight
of steep concrete steps, which pulled my eye uphill to a graceful
veranda and, behind that, to a peaked roof almost lost in the
forest"s lush canopy.
The low-lying clouds of early morning draped the thickly
forested island, giving it the feel of a Chinese landscape painting.
Then a small motorboat puttered up to a dock. A woman in camouflage
pants tromped across a metal walkway. The lights flickered on in two
low-slung buildings. The laboratory in the jungle came to life.

This wasn"t my first visit to Barro Colorado. I had traveled to the
island nearly ten years before, in 1990, with the much-lauded Harvard
biologist Edward O. Wilson. He was there to collect Pheidole, the
largest genus of ants in the New World; I was there to write about
him for a magazine.
A hero to BCI"s residents, Wilson was charming and erudite.
He"d won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his writing on ants and on human
nature, and one Crafoord Prize, the ecologist"s equivalent of a
Nobel. He"d ushered the subdiscipline of sociobiology into the
mainstream, and now, in his sixties, he was lecturing world leaders
on the value of conserving biodiversity.
By day, Wilson and I had walked the forest trails. He"d
pointed out stingless bees and basilisks, foot-long lizards with
craggy fins down their back and tail. He"d explained the intricate
relationship between bruchid beetles and a large rodent called an
agouti. "Get a load of that," he would say effusively, without a
trace of self-consciousness, as he stooped to examine a cryptically
colored butterfly.
By night, we had sat around the table in the dining hall, the
building with the peaked roof and veranda that overlooked the cove.
Over plates of rice and beans a dozen scientists sparred and jousted.
They slung statistics and tried to best one another with observations
made in the rain forest. "I saw two howler monkeys copulating on
Fairchild Trail this morning," a serious-looking plant physiologist
said. "I almost stepped on a juvie boa constrictor," a bat researcher
countered.
After dinner we drank Atlas beers and the scientists griped
about how much money molecular biologists were taking from science
budgets, leaving the zoologists, the organismal biologists, the
ecologists, with nothing. Names were dropped, tenure decisions
criticized. Outside, the jungle thrummed and pulsed; inside, ants
streamed over a drop of grape jelly.
Most of the residents were male, with a bias toward
entomology. One was studying jumping spiders, another was looking at
the flight performance of migratory butterflies, another observed the
foraging patterns among leaf-cutter ants. One scientist spent her
days examining the teeth of dead anteaters; they offered clues to
evolution, she said.
From my first walk with Wilson, the forest had intrigued me.
But I found the island residents equally compelling. Like Wilson,
they focused on subjects that had seemed, to me, hopelessly arcane.
How do frogs produce their mating calls? How much water transpires
from a tree? Unlike Wilson, many of the scientists did nothing to
hide their ambition. They were often aggressive with one another, or
else painfully shy. Many had little social grace. That was fine by
me. After all, they lived in a jungle, and their struggle to survive,
to use the phrase made popular by Darwin, was tuned to fever pitch.
My first visit to Barro Colorado was brief, but I was there
long enough to see that its residents lived and breathed science
through their every waking hour. Their language was data, their
currency was scholarly publications, their religion was the creative
forces of nature itself. I didn"t understand a lot of what was going
on, but the work seemed important to me, and noble. At the time, the
word "biodiversity" was just beginning to enter the common parlance.
Rain forests were going up in smoke, and disappearing with them were
storehouses of knowledge and potential new drugs, foods, fuels, and
fibers. Scientists like Wilson were preaching the gospel of
conservation: every piece of the natural world, from microbes to
pandas, matters. Caught up in the excitement of this place, I trusted
that scientists like these would reveal, someday, exactly how.
When I got home from Panama, images of the rain forest stayed
with me, as did the patter of the postdoctoral students in the dining
hall and the roar of the insects outside my cabin door. Years passed.
Worldwide, natural areas continued to deteriorate. What was the role
of scientists now? At a time when so much was going wrong with the
environment, fewer people were being trained to know the environment.
There were fewer biologists who understood the relationships among
whole, living organisms or recognized individual species. Science
seemed ever more focused on molecular studies, on parsing genomes and
analyzing the expression of proteins. Eventually, I wondered, were we
going to lose touch with the world around us by being so fascinated
by the world inside us?
And yet in this world made smaller and narrower by
technology, researchers were still coming to BCI to make broad
studies without thought of profits or patents. They were studying
evolution in a forest, not in a test tube or a computer. It may sound
hokey, but there were still scientists on BCI who studied nature for
the pure joy of it. Their exuberance piqued my curiosity. And so,
three months before my own wedding, I said goodbye to my fiancé and
boarded a plane for Panama.

The island awoke at dawn with the desperate-sounding screams of a
thousand howler monkeys, bellowing their territorial yawp. The
toucans and parakeets and kiskadees were well up by now, ascreech and
atwitter. Bands of coatimundi, their ringed tails held aloft,
snuffled through the leaf litter of the lab clearing. In rubber
sandals that slapped against the concrete walkways, the scientists
slouched downhill toward breakfast.
I"d been here a day already, and I was eager to get into the
forest. Alone, I climbed the concrete steps that led away from the
lab clearing. Within the forest, the morning racket gradually settled
to a low hum of birds, insects, and frogs. An anonymous creature
obscured by the tangled understory let loose a sound like broken
ceramics in a bag. A chicken-sized bird produced an eerie wail --
like a finger circling the rim of a crystal glass.
Moving along the trail, I stepped over ants carrying bright
green leaf fragments. I stared at a pattern of brown-dappled light
that beamed across the forest floor. It slithered away when I
approached -- a five-foot boa constrictor with no taste for
confrontation.
The forest was greenly dim. The air smelled of dampness, of
earth, of mammals. A branch snapped above my head, but no pieces made
it through the snarl of vines, saplings, and shrubs to reach the
ground. I came upon a fig tree, its bark smooth and its trunk skirted
with enormous buttresses. The renowned scientific traveler Henry
Walter Bates, working his way through Amazonia in the middle of the
nineteenth century, compared these buttress chambers to stalls in a
stable, some of them large enough to hold a dozen people.
Woody vines called lianas looped over the forest floor like
cursive writing run amok. Grasping neighbor trees with their
tendrils, thorns, hooks, arboreal roots, and leader shoots, they
hoisted themselves into the canopy, where they lounged over the
treetops and sprawled for hundreds of meters. Their stems, meanwhile,
grew as thick as many a temperate tree. Examining the fresh tips of
one vine, I thought that if only I could sit still for two hours I"d
certainly see them grow.
But it was too hot to stay in one place, and soon I moved on,
turning from Wheeler Trail onto Barbour-Lathrop. A twenty-centimeter
seedpod covered with thousands of tiny spikes caught my eye. A spider
disguised as white rootlets lay flat against a tree trunk. A blue
morpho with a fifteen-centimeter wingspan flopped by in the soggy
air, headed downhill toward a sunlit creek. With its arresting
coloration and outsize proportions, this butterfly seemed the
quintessential symbol of biological weirdness spawned by the hothouse
climate. Here things got large, even unseemly: flower petals the size
of cake plates, beetles like grenades, leaves as long as coffee
tables.
The morpho alit on a tree trunk, folded its wings, and
instantly disappeared, its underwing coloration a perfect crypsis
against the mottled bark. This was nature, I thought, at the height
of her creative powers.

Charles Darwin knew intuitively that tropical forests were places of
tremendous intricacy and energy. He and his cohort of scientific
naturalists were awed by the beauty of the Neotropics, where they
collected tens of thousands of species new to science. But they
couldn"t have guessed at the complete contents of the rain forest,
and they had no idea of its value to humankind. Even now, more than a
century later, the mechanisms of the rain forest still baffle, and
impress, scientific thinkers.
Some of the best of them have worked on Barro Colorado
Island. The laboratory on the island"s northeastern shore has
operated continuously since 1923, its backyard the most-studied
tropical rain forest in the world. Barro Colorado is both a monument
of nature and, perhaps more tellingly, a monument to nature -- off-
limits to the general public, virtually stateless. Sitting between
two continents, it is populated by field researchers from around the
world and administered by the Smithsonian Institution, which acts as
a diplomatic mission to science.
The station was the brainchild of James Zetek, a U.S.
Department of Agriculture entomologist who"d been working on mosquito
control in the Canal Zone since 1909. Zetek, a Czech from Nebraska,
had noted the ongoing destruction of the local watershed: land that
had been forested was being logged and farmed for the simple reason
that it was now, via the canal"s labyrinthine shoreline, reachable.
Zetek took every opportunity to speak with scientists who
passed through the Zone about setting aside land as a "natural park,"
but it wasn"t until March 1923 that he got lucky. He met up with
William Morton Wheeler, a professor of economic entomology at
Harvard"s Bussey Institute for Research in Applied Biology, and took
him by train to the tiny lakeside town of Frijoles, from which point
a boatman ferried the men to Barro Colorado.
Wheeler spent just an hour on the island, but in a clearing
of less than one acre he collected nineteen species of ants. Zetek
took ten species of termites, and each of them took a dozen species
of myrmecophiles and termitophiles. "Two new genera, one a beetle,
very remarkable!" Wheeler would later write.
Zetek made a similar pitch to Thomas Barbour, the associate
curator of reptiles and amphibians at Harvard"s Museum of Comparative
Zoology, who was also conducting research in Panama that month.
Together they decided that BCI, the only large piece of relatively
undisturbed virgin forest left in the Canal Zone, would make an ideal
place to conduct biological research.
Seeking protection from settlers, hunting, and other human
interference, Zetek presented his idea to the Canal Zone"s governor,
Jay Johnson Morrow, who received it warmly. With an alacrity unheard
of in the modern conservation era, Morrow proclaimed the island a
nature reserve on April 17, 1923. From this day on, settlers would
decamp; any hunters who were found trespassing would be considered
poachers.
Unfortunately, Morrow had no funding for the station, and
neither did the U.S. government. The men who dreamed of a field
station would have to build it themselves. Barbour had recently made
a killing on the stock market and was willing to help out. David
Fairchild, the U.S. Department of Agriculture"s chief "plant
explorer," gave his own money (his wife was the daughter of Alexander
Graham Bell) and raised even more from his socialite friends Allison
Armour and Barbour Lathrop. Their money put up buildings and a track
and engine to hoist supplies, by cart, up the 196 concrete steps
between the lake and the clearing.
It was here that the laboratory rose. Facing northeast, the
wood-frame building afforded excellent views out over the lake,
toward the jumbled green hills in the middle distance and, on a clear
day, on to the low spine of the Cordillera, the backbone of Panama"s
uplift.

On my second trip to the island I was happy to see the old lab still
standing, though substantially reconfigured; it looked trim and
neatly painted. I"d eaten in the downstairs dining room ten years
before, but the building was now used as a visitor"s center and a
party hall. Since a wave of renovations in the early 1990s, everyone
ate in a new building farther downslope. The scientists worked in air-
conditioned labs near the lakeshore and slept in relatively insect-
free dorms built of poured concrete.
Beyond the lab clearing, though, everything seemed the same --
as ten years earlier, or a hundred. The island was still thickly
forested, and there were still no roads or villages. Evidence of
modernity was scant. History looped all around me in the fifty-nine-
kilometer trail system.
Turning off Bar...

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