OOS 3-3
Diversity and the tropics: The ESA and a century of tropical ecology

Monday, August 10, 2015: 2:10 PM
315, Baltimore Convention Center
Megan Raby, History, University of Texas at Austin
This presentation explores episodes in the political, institutional, and intellectual history of US ecologists’ involvement in tropical research through the twentieth century, especially in the Caribbean and Latin America. Through an examination of the role of the Ecological Society of America in the development of tropical ecology, this presentation addresses the following questions: What motivated US ecologists to study tropical environments and organisms? How did they establish institutions in the tropics to pursue this research and what difficulties did they face? In what ways did ecologists link the funding of basic research to broader interests in the economic development of tropical countries? How did this research shape ecologists’ ideas about biological diversity in the tropics? Finally, what are the legacies of the twentieth-century history of US involvement in tropical ecology? This history reveals the important role of tropical research in the development of modern conceptions of biodiversity. At the same time, it can provide historical perspective on contemporary challenges, including the continued under-representation of the tropics in ecological research, the concentration of tropical research at few field sites, and the disproportionate representation of US authorship in tropical studies.

Since its founding, the Ecological Society of America has promoted the study of tropical ecology. First ESA president Victor Shelford’s Naturalist’s Guide to the Americas (1926) makes clear that US ecologists took the entire hemisphere as their domain in efforts to preserve sites for long-term research. Founding ESA members were also involved in establishing and maintaining stations at Cinchona, Jamaica; in Guyana; and at Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama. Ongoing research at such stations became the foundations for understanding the ecological and evolutionary causes of tropical species diversity. Securing institutional stability, however, meant emphasizing the relevance of ecology to tropical agriculture and medicine. Ecologists developed strategies to link funding for basic tropical research to the concerns of the US government agencies and corporations that dominated regional economies and politics. BCI veteran Orlando Park, for example, used his 1945 ESA presidential address to argue for basic tropical ecological research as the foundation of post-WWII hemispheric prosperity. Since the postcolonial 1960s, new institutions and attitudes have made tropical ecology more international, but challenges remain. This twentieth-century history can provide context as professional ecologists continue to navigate the complex relationships among basic research, conservation, and economic development in the tropics.