What Are the Tropics If Not Naturally Diverse?

By Ooi Kee Beng

main image
1-3 Attacus atlas 4-6 Rothschildia hesperus 8-9 Xyleutes strix 10-11 Draconia peripheta 18-19 Entheus priassus. Very large tropical moths from South-East Asia and tropical America. Albertus Seba, Plate from Thesaurus Cabinet of Natural Curiosities: Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri (4 Vol.), 1734-1765. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, La Haye

DESCRIPTIONS OF NATURE in the tropics once employed expressions such as luxuriant, verdant or lush. As technical terminology became the vogue, our ability to imagine narrowed as well. I think it is therefore beneficial for us today to read texts about the fauna and flora from the mid-19th century. Whose words to best use than Alfred Russel Wallace's, one of the first to conceive the radical idea of Natural Selection in biological evolution, and whose inspiration came from his travels in the Malay Archipelago between 1854, when he was just 21 years old, and 1862. He landed in Penang only twice, and briefly, when sailing into the region, and when leaving. He passed away in 1913 at the ripe age of 90.

Below are concluding sections of the first three chapters of his 382-page tome from 1878, Tropical Nature and Other Essays (MacMillan and Co. 1878), chosen because they are easy-to-read summaries of lengthy elucidations of three intimately related subjects, which together provide a lively outline of tropical flora and fauna and their surroundings, sadly an ecosphere that is already in deadly decline today.

I., II. Capsicum specie. Red-fruited upward facing Pepper (Solanaceae).
Plate from Basilius Besler's Herbarium. Photo by: Alfred Russel Wallace (from Natural Curiosities)

CHAPTER I: The Climate and Physical Aspects of the Equatorial Zone (p. 25-26)

[Here, Wallace decided to honour Henry Walter Bates, the author of The Naturalist on the River Amazon (1863) by quoting his depiction of a “typical equatorial day”.]

[…] “At the early period of the day (the first two hours after sunrise) the sky was invariably cloudless, the thermometer marking 72° or 73° Fahr. ; the heavy dew or the previous night’s rain, which lay on the moist foliage, becoming quickly dissipated by the glowing sun, which, rising straight out of the east, mounted rapidly towards the zenith. All nature was fresh, new leaf and flower-buds expanding rapidly… The heat increased hourly and towards two o’clock reached 92° to 93° Fahr. , by which time every voice of bird and mammal was hushed. The leaves, which were so moist and fresh in early morning, now became lax and drooping, and flowers shed their petals. On most days in June and July a heavy shower would fall some time in the afternoon, producing a most welcome coolness. The approach of the rainclouds was after a uniform fashion very interesting to observe. First, the cool sea-breeze which had commenced to blow about ten o’clock, and which had increased in force with the increasing power of the sun, would flag, and finally die away. The heart and electric tension of the atmosphere would then become almost insupportable. Languor and uneasiness would seize on every one, even the denizens of the forest betraying it by their motions. White clouds would appear in the east and gather into cumuli, with an increasing blackness along their lower portions. The whole eastern horizon would become almost suddenly black, and this would spread upwards, the sun at length becoming obscured. Then the rush of the mighty wind is heard through the forest, swaying the tree-tops; a vivid flash of lightning bursts forth, then a crash of thunder, and down streams the deluging rain. Such storms soon cease, leaving bluish-black motionless clouds in the sky until night. Meantime all nature is refreshed; but heaps of flower-petals and fallen leaves are seen under the trees. Towards evening life revives again, and the ringing uproar is resumed from bush and tree. The following morning the sun again rises in a cloudless sky; and so the cycle is completed; spring, summer, and autumn, as it were in one tropical day. The days are more or less like this throughout the year. A little difference exists between the dry and wet seasons; but generally, the dry season, which lasts from July to December, is varied with showers, and the wet, from January to June, with sunny days. It results from this, that the periodical phenomena of plants and animals do not take place at about the same time in all species, or in the individuals of any given species, as they do in temperate countries. In Europe, a woodland scene has its spring, its summer, its autumnal, and its winter aspects. In the equatorial forests the aspect is the same or nearly so every day in the year: budding, flowering, fruiting, and leaf-shedding are always going on in one species or other. It is never either spring, summer, or autumn, but each day is a combination of all three. With the day and night always of equal length, the atmospheric disturbances of each day neutralising themselves before each succeeding morn; with the sun in its course proceeding midway across the sky, and the daily temperature almost the same throughout the year – how grand in its perfect equilibrium and simplicity is the march of Nature under the equator!”

Solanum melongena. Aubergune (Solanées).
Plate from Besler's Herbarium (Hortus Eytettensis), 1613. Photo by: Alfred Russel Wallace (from Natural Curiosities)

CHAPTER II: Equatorial Vegetation (p. 65-68)

Concluding Remarks on Tropical Vegetation […] The primeval forests of the equatorial zone are grand and overwhelming by their vastness, and by the display of a force of development and vigour of growth rarely or never witnessed in temperate climates. Among their best distinguishing features are the variety of forms and species which everywhere meet and grow side by side, and the extent to which parasites, epiphytes, and creepers fill up every available station with peculiar modes of life. If the traveller notices a particular species and wishes to find more like it, he may often turn his eyes in vain in every direction. Trees of varied forms, dimensions, and colours are around him, but he rarely sees any one of them repeated. Time after time he goes towards a tree which looks like the one he seeks, but a closer examination proves it to be distinct. He may at length, perhaps, meet with a second specimen half a mile off, or may fail altogether, till on another occasion he stumbles on one by accident.

The absence of the gregarious or social habit, so general in the forests of extra-tropical countries, is probably dependent on the extreme equability and permanence of the climate. Atmospheric conditions are much more important to the growth of plants than any others. Their severest struggle for existence is against climate. As we approach towards regions of polar cold or desert aridity the variety of groups and species regularly diminishes; more and more are unable to sustain the extreme climatal conditions, till at last we find only a few specially organised forms which are able to maintain their existence. In the extreme north, pine or birch trees; in the desert, a few palms and prickly shrubs or aromatic herbs alone survive. In the equable equatorial zone there is no such struggle against climate. Every form of vegetation has become alike adapted to its genial heat and ample moisture, which has probably changed little even throughout geological periods; and the never-ceasing struggle for existence between the various species in the same areas has resulted in a nice balance of organic forces, which gives the advantage, now to one, now to another, species, and prevents any one type of vegetation from monopolising territory to the exclusion of the rest. The same general causes have led to the filling up of every place in nature with some specially adapted form. Thus we find a forest of smaller trees adapted to grow in the shade of greater trees. Thus we find every tree supporting numerous other forms of vegetation, and some so crowded with epiphytes of various kinds that their forks and horizontal branches are veritable gardens. Creeping ferns and arums run up the smoothest trunks; an immense variety of climbers hang in tangled masses from the branches and mount over the highest tree-tops. Orchids, bromelias, arums, and ferns grow from every boss and crevice, and cover the fallen and decaying trunks with a graceful drapery. Even those parasites have their own parasitical growth, their leaves often supporting an abundance of minute creeping mosses and hepaticæ. But the uniformity of climate which has led to this rich luxuriance and endless variety of vegetation is also the cause of a monotony that in time becomes oppressive. To quote the words of Mr. Belt: “Unknown the cold sleep of winter; unknown the lovely awakening of vegetation at the first gentle touch of spring. A ceaseless round of ever-active life weaves the fairest scenery of the tropics into one monotonous whole, of which the component parts exhibit in detail untold variety and beauty.” (Thomas Belt: The Naturalist in Nicaragua, 1874)

Canna indica. Red-flowered Canna Lily (Cannaceae).
Plate from Besler's Herbarium. Photo by: Alfred Russel Wallace (from Natural Curiosities)

To the student of nature the vegetation of the tropics will ever be of surpassing interest, whether for the variety of forms and structures which it presents, for the boundless energy with which the life of plants is therein manifested, or for the help which it gives us in our search after the laws which have determined the production of such infinitely varied organisms. When, for the first time, the traveller wanders in these primeval forests, he can scarcely fail to experience sensations of awe, akin to those excited by the trackless ocean or the alpine snowfields. There is a vastness, a solemnity, a gloom, a sense of solitude and of human insignificance which for a time overwhelms him; and it is only when the novelty of these feelings have passed away that he is able to turn his attention to the separate constituents that combine to produce these emotions, and examine the varied and beautiful forms of life which, in inexhaustible profusion, are spread around him.

CHAPTER III: The Aspects of Animal Life in the Tropical Forests (p. 121-123)

Most prominent are the butterflies, owing to their numbers, their size, and their brilliant colours; as well as their peculiarities of form, and the slow and majestic flight of many of them. In other insects, the large size, and frequency of protective colours and markings are prominent features; together with the inexhaustible profusion of the ants and other small insects. Among birds the parrots stand forth as the pre-eminent tropical group, as do the apes and monkeys among mammals; the two groups having striking analogies, in the prehensile hand and the power of imitation. Of reptiles, the two most prominent groups are the lizards and the frogs; the snakes, though equally abundant, being much less obtrusive.

1-2 Phasma Gigas 3-4 Fulgora laternaria 5-8 Auchenorrhyncha 1-2 Walking stick 3-4 Greater lanternfly 5-8 Cicadas. Albertus Seba,
Plate from Thesaurus Cabinet of Natural Curiosities: Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri (4 Vol.), 1734-1765. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, La Haye. Photo by: Alfred Russel Wallace (from Natural Curiosities)

Animal life is, on the whole, far more abundant and more varied within the tropics than in any other part of the globe, and a great number of peculiar groups are found there which never extend into temperate regions. Endless eccentricities of form, and extreme richness of colour are its most prominent features; and these are manifested in the highest degree in those equatorial lands where the vegetation acquires its greatest beauty and its fullest development. The causes of these essentially tropical features are not to be found in the comparatively simple influence of solar light and heat, but rather in the uniformity and permanence with which these and all other terrestrial conditions have acted; neither varying prejudicially throughout the year, nor having undergone any important change for countless past ages. While successive glacial periods have devastated the temperate zones, and destroyed most of the larger and more specialised forms which during more favourable epochs had been developed, the equatorial lands must always have remained thronged with life; and have been unintermittingly subject to those complex influences of organism upon organism, which seem the main agents in developing the greatest variety of forms and filling up every vacant place in nature. A constant struggle against the vicissitudes and recurring severities of climate must always have restricted the range of effective animal variation in the temperate and frigid zones, and have checked all such developments of form and colour as were in the least degree injurious in themselves, or which co-existed with any constitutional incapacity to resist great changes of temperature or other unfavourable conditions. Such disadvantages were not experienced in the equatorial zone. The struggle for existence against the forces of nature was there always less severe, – food was there more abundant and more regularly supplied, – shelter and concealment were at all times more easily located; and almost the only physical changes experienced, being dependent on cosmical and geological changes, were so slow, that variation and natural selection were always able to keep the teeming mass of organisms in nicely balanced harmony with the changing physical conditions. The equatorial zone, in short, exhibits to us the result of a comparatively continuous and unchecked development of organic forms; while in the temperate regions, there have been a series of periodical checks and extinctions of a more or less disastrous nature, necessitating the commencement of the work of development in certain lines over and over again. In the one, evolution has had a fair chance; in the other it has had countless difficulties thrown in the way. The equatorial regions are then, as regards their past and present life history, a more ancient world than that represented by the temperate zones, a world in which the laws which have governed the progressive development of life have operated with comparatively little check for countless ages, and have resulted in those infinitely varied and beautiful forms – these wonderful eccentricities of structure, of function, and of instinct – that rich variety of colour, and that nicely balanced harmony of relations – which delight and astonish us in the animal production of all tropical countries.

1-4 Anura 5 Lacertidae 6 Serpentes 1-4 Frogs 5 Lizard 6 Snake from Virginia (according to Seba). Albertus Seba,
Plate from Thesaurus Cabinet of Natural Curiosities: Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri (4 Vol.), 1734-1765. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, La Haye. Photo by: Alfred Russel Wallace (from Natural Curiosities)

Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com