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Tropical ecology: an introduction

Writing the book on life in the tropics.

Professor of Biology John Kricher began teaching tropical ecology in 1978, when he first led a group of Wheaton students on a field trip to Belize. Now a foremost expert on the topic, he has just published Tropical Ecology (Princeton University Press, 2011), a 632-page color-illustrated textbook that offers a comprehensive introduction to the subject.

How did you become interested in tropical ecology?
I was drawn to the tropics [in 1978] through an opportunity to do a course in Belize. I plunged ahead, knowing relatively little about tropical ecology but eager to learn along with my students. Thirty-three years later, alums still talk about that first course. I continued to offer it and have since explored Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela to learn more and more about tropical ecology.

Why did you write this book?
My first tropical book, A Neotropical Companion, focused mainly on the Middle American tropics. Many college courses in tropical ecology adopted it, but there was a clear need for a college-level comprehensive textbook on tropical ecology, and my editor asked me to take it on. Tropical regions offer outstanding opportunities to research and to learn how complex interactions occur among species that have profound effects in structuring ecosystems and in how our very planet functions.

What can tropical ecology teach us about life on Earth?
The key to tropical ecology is in the complexity of relationships among the myriad of species present. No other ecosystems, natural or otherwise, rival the tropics in the number of species of plants, birds, mammals, insects, microbes, etc. that you find in just a hectare of forest. Well over 50 percent of the world’s species are found only in the tropics, even though the total area of the tropics is proportionally far less than that. There are 20 to 30 species of trees and shrubs in Wheaton Woods. But if we moved Wheaton to, say, Amazonia, we’d have 200 to 300 or more species of trees and shrubs in the same amount of area. We’d be able to discover new species of insects and various other forms of life.

John KricherWhy is biodiversity important?
Biodiversity is important to life on Earth because it is life on Earth; it is what we share the planet with. The various life forms, in their combined and complex activities and interrelationships, are responsible for keeping everything—from the atmosphere to soil and water—relatively stable. We call this collective effect “ecosystem services,” and these services depend on biodiversity to supply the labor. It is astonishing that we have reached a point in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history where one species, one genome, namely Homo sapiens, has significantly altered and perturbed such global processes as regulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans. We need all the help available to maintain a stable Earth, and biodiversity does that. Earth is a living planet, and biodiversity is the expression of that life.

You’re an ornithologist. How did you first get interested in birding?
I have had a lifelong interest in birds and other forms of life. I began as a small child and still have the heavily worn, indeed beat-up copy of my first bird guide. Birding is most definitely an aesthetic pursuit as well as a scientific one. My vocation and avocation are one and the same.

An expanded version of this interview has been published in the fall 2011 issue of the Wheaton Quarterly.

Author photo: Martha Vaughan