Seeking the American Tropics
248 pages, 6 x 9
Release Date:15 Sep 2020
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Seeking the American Tropics

South Florida's Early Naturalists

University Press of Florida

For centuries, the southernmost region of the Florida peninsula was seen by outsiders as wild and inaccessible, one of the last frontiers in the quest to understand and reveal the natural history of the continent. Seeking the American Tropics tells the stories of the explorers and adventurers who—for better and for worse—helped open the unique environment of South Florida to the world.

Beginning with the arrival of Juan Ponce de León in 1513, James Kushlan describes how most of the famous Spanish explorers never made it to South Florida, leaving the area’s rich natural history out of scientific records for the next 250 years. It wasn’t until the British colonial and early American periods that the first surveyors were commissioned and the first naturalists—Titian Peale and John James Audubon—arrived to collect, draw, and report the subtropical flora and fauna that were so unique to North America.

Moving into the railroad era, Kushlan illuminates the activities of scientists such as Henry Nehrling and Charles Torrey Simpson alongside the dabbling of wealthy amateur naturalists. He follows the story to the 1920s, when tourism was flourishing and signs of ecological damage were starting to show. Years of wildlife trade, resource extraction, invasive species introduction, and swamp drainage had taken their toll. And many of the naturalists who had been outspoken about protecting South Florida’s environment had also played a part in its destruction.

Today the region is among one of the most thoroughly studied places on the planet—but at a cost. In this absorbing and cautionary tale, Kushlan illustrates how exploration has so often trumped conservation throughout history. He exposes how much of the natural world we have already lost in this vivid portrait of the Florida of yesterday.

Kushlan tells of the people who were compelled to decipher and name the tropical flora even while experiencing the difficulties of navigating landscapes so vastly different from the upper reaches of the state. He also shows that the Florida they explored is not the Florida of today. This book should be read for the sad realization of what Florida has lost but, more importantly, for the hope offered by correcting past errors.’—Gail Fishman, author of Journeys Through Paradise: Pioneering Naturalists in the Southeast

‘A sweeping historical narrative of Florida’s broad array of physical features along with those people who sought to understand, tame, chronicle, paint, alter, or even preserve them. Covering the five centuries following the Spanish entrada, Seeking the American Tropics will become standard reading for anyone interested in the natural environment of Florida.’—Paul S. George, author of Along the Miami River

‘A fascinating overview and a major addition to our knowledge of the early scientific explorers of the Keys and Everglades areas.’—Edward J. Petuch, coauthor of The Geology of the Everglades and Adjacent Areas

James A. Kushlan is an ornithologist, conservationist, and writer. He has served as research associate for the Smithsonian Institution, director of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, and president of the American Ornithologists’ Union. His many books include Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens.



1. The Spanish Centuries

2. A British Interlude

3. Early American Florida

4. An Interwar Interval

5. Pioneer Naturalists

6. A Gilded Era and Naturalist Golden Age

7. The Marine and Physical Scientists

8. The Zoologists

9. The Botanists

10. Naturalists and Conserving South Florida

11. Naturalists and the Ironies That Are South Florida



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