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The Ornaments of Life

Coevolution and Conservation in the Tropics

The average kilometer of tropical rainforest is teeming with life; it contains thousands of species of plants and animals. As The Ornaments of Life reveals, many of the most colorful and eye-catching rainforest inhabitants—toucans, monkeys, leaf-nosed bats, and hummingbirds to name a few—are an important component of the infrastructure that supports life in the forest. These fruit-and-nectar eating birds and mammals pollinate the flowers and disperse the seeds of hundreds of tropical plants, and unlike temperate communities, much of this greenery relies exclusively on animals for reproduction.
            Synthesizing recent research by ecologists and evolutionary biologists, Theodore H. Fleming and W. John Kress demonstrate the tremendous functional and evolutionary importance of these tropical pollinators and frugivores. They shed light on how these mutually symbiotic relationships evolved and lay out the current conservation status of these essential species. In order to illustrate the striking beauty of these “ornaments” of the rainforest, the authors have included a series of breathtaking color plates and full-color graphs and diagrams.  

616 pages | 98 color plates, 2 halftones, 15 line drawings, 53 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Interspecific Interactions

Biological Sciences: Botany, Conservation, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Natural History


"This lovely paperback presents a comprehensive and absorbing survey of coevolution and conservation in the tropics. It covers such interesting subjects as mutualism in pollination and frugivory, the phylogeny and biogeography of mutualism, and macroevolutionary consequences of pollen and seed dispersal. Printed on heavy glossy paper, filled with many full-colour photographs, diagrams, tables and data graphs, this meticulously researched book also includes two appendices, 74 pages of references, and separate indices listing subjects and species. This scholarly work can be used as a university-level textbook, as a reference, or as a guide for self-study."

GrrlScientist | Guardian (UK)

“Tropical forests around the world are the scene in which each day, and every night, hundreds of species of plants, birds, and mammals interact positively with each other. As part of foraging, animals assist in pollination and seed dispersal. Such interactions, which involve many of the most spectacular animals of the tropics, true ornaments of life, represent a significant part of the functioning of the terrestrial ecosystems that harbor the highest biodiversity on the planet. . . . Never before has been the titanic task of compiling the extant knowledge on such tropical vertebrate-plant mutualistic interactions so well crafted and exceptionally timely as in this volume.”

Danny Rojas | Quarterly Review of Biology

“Biotic interactions are biodiversity’s wireframe, and Fleming and Kress carefully dissect their structure and coevolution. . . . The Ornaments of Life offers a magisterial perspective of the ecological intricacies and genetic consequences of these mutualisms and their outcomes.”

Pedro Jordano | BioScience

“The distinguished duo of Batman (Fleming) and Heliconia­-man (Kress) apply their combined 70 years of research on plant-animal interactions to argue that these species are so much more than visually appealing ornaments in tropical ecosystems.  . . . Such interactions may seem like a quaint subset of ecology, but the authors make a convincing argument that these mutualisms form a vital part of the ecology of tropical ecosystems and have been an important driver of the evolutionary diversification of plants and vertebrates throughout the tropics. . . . The Ornaments of Life is required reading for anyone interested in acquiring advanced understanding of tropical ecology, pollination biology, fruit/seed dispersal, hummingbirds, other nectar feeders, bats, and primates, and evolution of mutualisms. The novel insights and thoroughness of analysis that the authors bring to the topic are guaranteed to force readers to think about and study these interactions in new and diverse ways.”

Scott W. Shumway, Wheaton College | Ecology

“A milestone contribution to our understanding animal-plant coevolution and coevolutionary phenomena in general. . . . Fleming and Kress’s book is worth recommending to a broad circle of readers who are interested in evolution and ecology as well as in tropical birds, bats and primates. The book is a rich trove of knowledge for everybody and a great source of inspiration for evolutionary ecologists with a penchant for theorizing.”

Andrzej Elzanowski, Museum and Institute of Zoology, Polish Academy of Sciences | Acta Chiropterologica

“In this impressive tome, Fleming and Kress provide us with an absorbing overview of the ecology and evolution of pollen and seed dispersal mutualisms in the tropics, delving into their ecology and development through evolutionary time. . . . An expertly written, comprehensive introduction.”

Kym Ottewell, Science and Conservation, Department of Parks and Wildlife, Western Australia, Australia | Journal of Field Ornithology

“What a delightful scholarly and well-presented work! The habit of considering the conservation of species as if they were independent of all others remains ingrained in many biodiversity specialists who focus on particular groups of organisms. This book should help dispel that myth in relation to tropical plants and vertebrates.”

Biodiversity and Conservation

“The title of this splendid, important book is taken from a paper published in 1977 that suggested animals such as birds and mammals are of little fundamental importance in plant dynamics in the tropics, and thus are mere ‘ornaments’ rather than integral to community function. Fleming and Kress seek to dispel that notion, and they do so with great skill and fine detail. . . . This book, well supported by tables, figures, and photographs, is an important contribution to tropical biology and deserves a wide readership. Highly recommended.”

J. C. Kricher, Wheaton College | Choice

"The most extensive synthesis of tropical plant-animal interactions ever published."

The Plant Press: A quarterly newsletter from the Dept. of Botany and the US National Herbarium

“Theodore H. Fleming and W. John Kress here bring together current knowledge of the ecology and evolution of vertebrate-plant mutualisms, from biogeography and energetics through species proliferation and conservation. They’ve analyzed the reciprocal ‘fine-tuning’ between bird-pollinated flowers and nectarivorous birds, or fruits and seed dispersers, on a worldwide scale and in the context of molecular-clock dated phylogenies, resulting in an unrivaled synthesis.” 

Susanne Renner | Ludwig-Maximilans-Universität

“Theodore H. Fleming and W. John Kress provide an around-the-world tour of tropical flowers and fruits, and mutual dependency between the plants that produce them and the animals that visit them.  The rich blend of natural history and evolutionary ecology yields many new insights about origins and importance of these ‘ornaments’ to tropical ecosystems.  This book will spark the imagination and curiosity of anyone interested in the beauty of nature.” 

Douglas Levey | National Science Foundation

Table of Contents



1     The Scope of This Book
2     Patterns of Regional and Community Diversity
3     The Resource Base
4     Patterns of Pollen and Seed Dispersal and Their Ecological and Genetic Consequences
5     Macroevolutionary Consequences of Pollen and Seed Dispersal
6     Phylogeny and Biogeography of These Mutualisms
7     The Pollination Mutualism
8     The Frugivory Mutualism
9     Synthesis and Conclusions about the Ecology and Evolution of Angiosperm-Vertebrate Mutualisms
10    The Future of Vertebrate-Angiosperm Mutualisms

Appendix 1: Overview of the Major Families of Avian and Mammalian Pollinators and Seed Dispersers
Appendix 2: Overview of the Major Families of Plants containing Species That Are Pollinated or
Dispersed by Birds or Mammals



Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award
Honorable Mention

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