Elizabeth Royte, Author . Houghton Mifflin $25 (336p) ISBN 978-0-618-19014-0

Royte, a contributing writer for Outside magazine who has also published in National Geographic, Harper's and Rolling Stone, spent a year with ecologists on Panama's Barro Colorado Island, after an earlier visit (for an article on famed biologist E.O. Wilson) sparked her curiosity about the research being conducted there. The result is this excellent book, a superb introduction to tropical ecology and theoretical biology, as well as original and thoroughly engaging travel writing. By hiring herself out as a research assistant at large, Royte gains intimacy with the professors and students at the island's research station and gradually gains acceptance into their world. She tracks a troop of spider monkeys with a woman whose research on their reproductive cycles holds the promise of being "quietly groundbreaking," spends nights in the tree canopy observing bats that build tents from leaves, and crouches on the forest floor to catalogue the social behavior of leaf-cutter ants. With humor, Royte describes the social hierarchies of the researchers and tourists who visit the island, in terms not dissimilar to those of the ecological studies the scientists themselves conduct. She wrestles with questions about the value of fieldwork amid mounting concerns worldwide about biodiversity and species extinction. This book illustrates how small breakthroughs do in fact occur, making the "mysterious and dim" tropical forest "just a tiny bit brighter." (Sept. 26)

Forecast:While this title will be a must-read for professionals and armchair naturalists alike, Royte's winning combination of detail, expertise and engaging humor (along with an author tour) should draw in literate lay readers beyond the adventure set.

Reviewed on: 07/30/2001
Release date: 09/01/2001
Paperback - 336 pages - 978-0-618-25758-4
Hardcover - 328 pages - 978-0-395-97997-6
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