October 23, 2017

Understanding tropical ecosystems

Book Review: Ecology of Tropical Plants, by Margaret L. Vickery. John Wiley & Sons 1984.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 15 No. 3, March 1985.


This is a short textbook – an adaptation, as the author indicates, for tropical regions, of R. F. Daubenmire’s Plants and Environment – a Textbook of Autecology.

Margaret Vickery regards it as important that people understand the functioning of tropical ecosystems for

“It is only through the study of such systems by ecologists and biogeographers that the effects of this interference can be predicted and, hopefully, steps taken to minimise the irreversible destruction which is now taking place in many areas of the tropics [mainly as a result of] forest clearance, overcultivation, and over-grazing.”

The first question which many readers will ask, is the meaning of the word ‘autecology’. Dr Vickery rightly tells us “that the basic functional unit of ecology is the ecosystem” Yet she regards ecology as being concerned with the study of communities and populations; why not of ecosystems? Of course, ecology has, in recent years, become increasingly reductionistic, which it had to do, in order to become scientifically respectable. ‘Autecology’ is particularly reductionistic, since its field of study is apparently the relationship of the individual organism with-its ecosystem.

The book is divided up into 10 chapters, the first being an introduction, the others dealing respectively with plants and soil, plants and water, plants and radiation, plants and the atmosphere, tropical vegetation, interactions between plants, plants and animals, plants and man and the last being an investigation into the environment by Dr John Hall of the University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

The book is perfectly straight-forward, full of useful data, well written and non-controversial. It should serve as a useful little textbook for students studying this subject.

One criticism is, that it does not sufficiently accentuate the very critical differences between the functioning of temperate and tropical ecosystems. More specifically it does not really explain the functioning of the latter in such a way as to enable people to predict the consequences of the human interference she refers to, so as to enable them to take the necessary steps “to minimise the irreversible destruction which is now taking place in many areas of the tropics”.

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