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Barefoot through the Amazon: On the Path of Evolution Paperback – March 5, 2013
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The Amazon Book Review
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About the Author
Named one of the HEROES FOR THE PLANET by Time Magazine in 2000, Dutch and naturalized Brazilian primatologist, Dr. MARC VAN ROOSMALEN, has certainly proved one requires super hero qualities to navigate not only the Amazon jungle, but also the "monkey business" politics of governments and world environmental agencies. Landing in a Brazilian jail in 2007 among convicted murderers being charged for alleged biopiracy, this world renowned explorer was sentenced for 14 years to be spent in a public jail. Concerned that scientific inquiry was being criminalized, outraged scientists worldwide came to his appeal and after an extensive legal battle, in 2009 he was acquitted of all charges by the Supreme Court. After spending 30 years exploring the Amazon, Van Roosmalen has become the world's leading expert on the Amazon's ecology with emphasis on monkeys, plant-animal relations in seed dispersal, and coevolution. He has discovered several new monkey species including a new primate genus CALLIBELLA, and identified another 20 new mega-mammals. All these new creatures, incl. a third fresh-water dolphin and a dwarf manatee, are described in his Magnum Opus “Barefoot through the Amazon”. He has also discovered evidence of prehistoric Amerindian horticulturists farming in the Amazon, and surmises that the soil enhancement methods employed by them already for over 5000 years could offer an alternative to the destructive slash-and-burn techniques used today. Clearly seeing the devastation of the "Lungs" and the "Carbon Sink" of our planet, Van Roosmalen has been committed to the conservation of the rain forest. He has been an outspoken critic of corporate and governmental corruption that has led to the illegal logging and deforestation in the Amazon. Addressing his exploration and discoveries, his activism, and controversial incarceration, many articles have appeared in the press, including the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Guardian, Smithsonian Magazine and Wired. National Geographic has produced the documentary film about him titled SPECIES HUNTER.
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Author, Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology (Hancock, 2006)
Van Roosmalen is no doubt the last naturalist in the tradition of 19th century-explorers as Von Humboldt and Alfred Wallace. He has discovered over 20 new mammal species and numerous trees. In 2000, he was selected as one of the worldwide recognized "Heroes for the Planet", a highly prestigious environmental award created by Time Magazine.
Early on, to become a primatologist Van Roosmalen took a two-year hiatus to become a botanist, publishing the Illustrated Guide to the Fruits of the Flora of Suriname - the first guide of its kind to the area. Just so that he could identify what his monkeys were eating. With this new expertise he was able to gather ground-breaking information on the ecology of a species spider monkey. Even with some lengthy narrative detailing a day in the life of a group spider monkeys in chapter 2, for example, it's difficult not to be swept up in his accounts and imagining for instance what it must be like to track one of these groups through miles and miles of rainforest and to survive on the fruits that monkeys themselves survived. These accounts, and others like them, are great examples of how demanding field work is actually done - describing the nuts and bolts of a process that eventually leads to polished publications.
The development of the details of his "fruit syndromes" in chapter 3 - classifying the all-important seed dispersal strategies of rainforest trees - could only come about from a wealth of first-hand experience in the field, and indeed a rounded knowledge of how the rainforest works. (Read this chapter and you might have a fighting chance of surviving being lost in the Amazon and not being poisoned by choosing to eat the wrong thing.) But the knowledge was hard one. In the same self-deprecating manner and with hubris biting back, Van Roosmalen describes a near fatal mistake in eating a fruit based on a misjudged observation of exactly how his spider monkeys were eating the fruit.
Chapter 4 covers the fascinating geological and hydrological history of the Amazon basin (it used to drain mostly to the west, not to the east) and the resulting aquatic species that adapted from marine to freshwater conditions - and the famous contrasting Amazon water types and the differing ecologies they give rise to in the Basin's vast flood plains.
Van Roosmalen is perhaps best well known for his discovery of new species of Amazon monkeys (as well as many other Amazon animal and plant species new to science; the list isn't short - you should also visit his website). In chapter 5 there is the absolutely remarkable detective story of finding the black-crowned dwarf marmoset, a new species and the second-smallest species of monkey in the world. And in finding the dwarf marmoset he finds at least as great a prize: a biologically "lost world" that not only houses the dwarf marmoset but other remarkable new species, many of them not dwarf at all. It's alarming to learn that this irreplaceable area is currently under threat.
And there's a lot more besides in this big, very well illustrated, book on the Amazon. Wherever he focuses his attention among the wide range of topics he covers, Van Roosmalen is great at seeing both small and large-scale patterns in the workings of the Amazon Basin, and generating explanations for them. I'd challenge anyone who has just a little of E. O. Wilson's biophilia within them not to be inspired by Van Roosmalen's imagery and ideas, and indeed not to hurry to the area to see it for themselves. Frankly, I'm the one humbled by Barefoot - having spent a lot of time in the Neotropics myself. It represents a prodigious amount of field work while overcoming a range of obstacles from overzealous authorities to a duplicitous scientist or two (to put it kindly in both cases). For the most part by far, this book isn't a result of brief field season forays followed by a retreat to the office, with data collection being bolstered by the contributions of collaborators or graduate students. Van Roosmalen has done the work himself and has lived and breathed it for extended periods - in true fashion of the 19th century naturalists that he frequently nods in the direction of. With many examples of amazon biology for the first time in print, Barefoot is a rich resource for graduate students looking for a project and an important addition to the library of anyone who cares about the ecology, and future, of the greatest rainforest this world has left.