An intriguing story of time spent with the field scientists of Panama’s Barro Colorado Island, from magazine journalist Royte.
Barro Colorado Island is six square miles of tropical wonder in the middle of the Panama Canal that has, since 1923, been the site of a Smithsonian-administered research center. There, scientists of many stripes seek to take the measure of the baffling mechanics of the tropical forest, to try to answer Darwin’s question: “What explains the riot?” Royte, in turn, went to seek the scientists’ measure. Who were these people studying tent-making bats, the role of epiphytes in anthropod diversity, the limits to the population density of spiny rats? She reports back on the daily life at the center and of the staff members, some more, some less endearing but all dedicated to their work. Among them are old fashioned naturalists who observe, take notes, and draw conclusions, as well as thinkers of the big picture—of mutualism and the origin and persistence of species—but fewer and fewer are permitted such cerebrating: “Sadly, unorthodox thinking and broad studies are now neither encouraged nor rewarded.” Royte becomes as comfortable among the “classic BCI weirdo—smart and nerdy, hyperfocused on work and socially awkward, a festival of scratching, toe-tapping, and other expressions of nervous energy,” as she is working with the handfuls of young field assistants doing the droog work. Almost all, however, have a passion for fieldwork, putting up with the seemingly endless physical misery—believe it—for the joy of studying evolution at ground zero. They also give Royte a chance to witness the disconnect between doing fieldwork on biodiversity and acting on biodiversity’s behalf; importantly for Royte, the fruits of the field scientists’ work have to be marshaled for conservation planning.
A finely drawn chronicle of fieldwork, with an appealing moral edge: “. . . a plea for conservation, and the basic research that made it possible, that anyone can understand.”