Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Travellers through tropical rain forest in Australia would give their eye teeth for a book as comprehensive and scholarly as the text by John Kricher, aptly named The New Neotropical Companion . To be a useful companion a book must be sturdily bound, it must have clear and concise information, and its illustrations must be large enough to see in dim light and completely married to an accurate text. Such a book should not be too bulky and it must be available at a reasonable price. John Kricher’s publication exhibits every one of these points to an exceptional degree.
Kricher is a professor of biology at Wheaton College. He is an acknowledged expert in the flora, fauna, and ecology of neotropical rainforests. His book has a long history. It began life in 1989 as a Little Green Book, but has morphed through various life times into today’s text. Responding to criticisms that a particular version is not sufficiently academic or another version is too general, Kricher has met all criticism with a book for “the non-academically focused readers and travellers that with a broad brush describes New World tropical ecology and that serves to interpret and explain the most biologically diverse terrestrial ecosystems on Earth” (10). The book meets that challenge very well.
Kricher’s book is a companion; it is not a textbook. It was conceived as a reference book to satisfy questions about the species and habitats of the dwellers of tropical America. Opening the book at random the reader might find that s/he is facing pp. 106 – 107. On p. 106 is a discussion of the dynamics of drought – tree mortality rates, elevated growth rates in trees that survived a drought, changes in abundance, and a succinct summary of the information – everything fitting neatly into half a page. Page 107 is then given over to a life history of a representative successional plant (In this case a heliconia). The plant is described in concise prose easily within the grasp of the general reader and is accompanied by a colour photograph that occupies a quarter of the page. These two pages, chosen at random, represent the contents of the book from the point of view of species and habitats.
Kricher sets out as well to include every major ecosystem, from lowland forests to the high Andes, and portray them with a wealth of colour. He asks in Chapter Nine why there are so many species. He addresses this issue in terms of species richness – patterns of plant species richness in each ecosystem, and then animals exhibiting the same criterion. He writes of the link between species richness and diversity gradients, then addresses climate, energy availability and species richness, and then puts forward a number of hypotheses and further matters too numerous to mention here. The book is a compendium of theory, facts and practical matters. All of it is supported by photographs of outstanding merit.
If a reader wants to know anything about rivers, savannas, mountains, weather systems, clouds, birds or animal or insect life, answers will be found in this remarkable book. If you want to know what photographs are achievable in a notoriously difficult area like a tropical jungle Kricher can show you. Not quite up on the Brazilian cerrado, check page 255. There is little that Kricher has not addressed.
The Table of Contents can usually tell a reviewer what to expect. This is a rich harvest indeed. Why is it hot, humid, and rainy in the tropics? Kricher answers this question in ten pages. ‘Essential dirt: soils and cycling’ is addressed, as is ‘from monkeys to tarantulas’, everything in comprehensive, strong word and sentence choice, with no writing down to the reader. Then there is the section headed “Words of Caution: Be Sure to Read This”. It deals with the little things that could make a traveller’s journey a misery: mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks and the like.
The blurb on this engaging book can lodge the claim that “this is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing on species identification”. As a guide it does all that; as the only guide, well I suspect that that’s true, too. If there is any criticism o make it would be that the book is a solid weight to fit into a traveller’s luggage. But hey! I’d deal with that!
If you live in a tropical area, whether in the Americas or anywhere else, this is the book to have beside you, for much of the common sense herein is transferable. It contains a wealth of detail, and is well worth the price.
By John Kricher