Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Must Reading: Barefoot Through the Amazon

Barefoot through the Amazon - On the Path of Evolution (Kindle Edition)
Marc van Roosmalen, 2013

Dr. Marc van Roosmalen has lived a life you might not even think possible in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: that of an explorer of remote lands who has discovered an incredibly bounty of new species. From a 1976 study of monkeys in Suriname through his long labors in Brazil, van Roosmalen has worked with a minimum of support from the "civilized world" (though he has taken advantage of new tools, from email to websites, as they were available). Staying in brush many times until the local animals and local peoples became used to him, he discovered things no aerial survey or quick river trip, however arduous, could have uncovered. He learned what was edible by testing spider-monkey favorites and went on to become an expert in the plants of the rainforest as well as the animals. This book, taking us chronologically through his adventures in a sumptuously illustrated fashion, includes not just stories of species but detailed yet clear explanations of how the rainforest ecology works. You'll learn all you ever wanted to know about spider monkeys, but you'll also learn that the rainforest plant life: which tends to become a green blur in the minds of those of us who write about it from a distance - is far more complex and colorful than even botanists knew. He tackled the interesting question of why there are no giant (over 300kg) animals here like in Africa, and the primates are comparatively tiny. While there is an endless array of plant species, the "herb layer" favored by African browsers isn't evident: high-energy plant food is more patchy, and this rainforest takes more work to make a living from. What fascinates most readers (such as myself), though, are the new species, and they seem to rain down from the trees for a unique explorer such as van Roosmalen. Here you will find pictures and descriptions of new mammals, and some still undescribed. It was 1996 when a man brought him an undescribed pygmy marmoset that became the first of many species - some of which were given to him with no clue about where they originally came from. He also kept a dwarf porcupine as a pet, uncertain for a while whether it was a new species - it was. He had to rewrite the monkey genus Callicebus to accommodate some of the new forms. You'll meet his new spider monkey, new bright orange-red coati, new giant peccary (wild pig) and his dwarf manatee (some specialists debate whether this is a species, but van Roosmalen argues strongly for it). Then there's the new brocket deer and a species or subspecies van Roosmalen feels he's achingly close to proving: the white-throated solid black jaguar. Van Roosmalen was named a Hero of the Planet by TIME magazine and went through a hellish clash with the Brazilian wildlife agency, which basically felt he was doing a lot of things without permit or sanction and, among other things, destroyed many irreplaceable specimens before the courts finally cleared him. This is a book like no other, about a life like no other.

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