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Pp. ix + 635. Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford.

£60.00 (hardback), ISBN 0-632-04944-8.

After something of a delay, here are the proceedings of the 37th Symposium of the BES held in Cambridge (UK) in 1996. The result, at over 600 pages and 22 chapters, is a book thick enough to stun an ox. Never mind the width, though, what about the quality?

This is a solid text, in every sense. The book provides a useful insight into what is currently engaging tropical researchers, and it is obvious on the basis of these contributions that a great deal of interesting research has been undertaken over the past decade. There is no doubt that this book will be consulted widely; at the very least it provides a valuable access point into recent literature and will therefore be particularly appreciated by students. As a statement of current research into tropical communities, however, it raised a few doubts in my mind.

Firstly, this book is mostly about trees. Half of the chapters deal specifically with the regeneration ecology of rain forest trees, and the factors influencing establishment. As a result, the other contributions appear to be rather token efforts – there are single chapters on amphibians, birds, butterflies, primates, a couple on fish, and a couple on grazing mammals. What about fungi, bacteria, or beetles, where most of tropical diversity resides? Rain forests also receive much more emphasis than other tropical communities; why so little on dry forests, deserts, coral reefs or marine communities? Why nothing on molecular ecology, which is revolutionizing our understanding of ecological processes, and why so little on the palaeoecological research which has provided such valuable insights into long-term dynamics? The editors have to share the blame for these imbalances. The sequencing of chapters is also rather haphazard and I would like to have seen greater editorial efforts at integrating the different contributions and in highlighting the parallels between them, perhaps in the form of a summary chapter. The focus of the book and the logic of its structure are certainly elusive as it stands.

My second doubt relates to the questions that the research addresses. The main conclusion of all this research – to summarize brutally – is that tropical systems are more dynamic than people used to think. This is in itself an important finding, but much of the work is placed in the context of understanding patterns of diversity and the basis of species coexistence. Why is there so much emphasis on niche differentiation in tropical trees? It is disappointing to see such a lot of effort devoted to a question which is over 50 years old, arguably intractable, and uses concepts (such as niche) that cannot be adequately defined or operationalized (see Peters 1991). According to the criteria described by Peters 1991, much of the research described here is scientifically weak, with little explicit hypothesis-testing and little mention of theory; arguably more akin to natural history than ecological science. Many of the theories that are mentioned, such as the Janzen–Connell hypothesis, seem to have been around for a long time. The ghost of P. W. Richards seems to pervade this book – his classic but largely descriptive text (Richards 1952) is cited by a third of the authors. Does this suggest a need for new questions about tropical communities, and the development of new theories?

Finally, there is very little here about the impact of people on the dynamics of tropical communities. Although there are valuable chapters on exploitation of wildebeest and impacts of small-scale fishing on reefs, there is almost nothing on the impacts of deforestation and forest degradation. This produces a rather surreal effect, rather like attending a fiddle concert in Rome while the ‘recreational pyromaniacs’ (my favourite phrase of this book) go to work. Surely, while tropical forests continue to be cleared and degraded at unprecedented rates, we need to understand how these communities will respond to this disturbance? Is the development of tools for predicting the impacts of such disturbance not at the very core of what ecological science has to offer, towards solution of this global catastrophe? Without addressing these issues this book appears to me to be seriously flawed, and in marked contrast to an earlier symposium volume on a related theme (Sutton et al. 1983).

References

  1. Top of page
  2. References
  • Peters, R.H. (1991) A Critique for Ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Richards, P.W. (1952) The Tropical Rain Forest: an Ecological Study. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Sutton, S.L., Whitmore, T.C. & Chadwick, A.C. (Eds) (1983) Tropical Rain Forest: Ecology and Management. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.