Strangler Fig
 

 

 

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photos M. Noonan

 

The Strangler Fig is one of the most prominent trees in the Neotropical forest.  "Strangler Fig" in Spanish is "Matapalo" ( or “tree-killer”), and therefore both the English and the Spanish have a very descriptive name for this glorious, yet extremely competitive plant.   

 

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photo M. Noonan
 

Unlike many trees, the Strangler Fig starts its life already high above the ground, often nestled inbetween a tree branch and trunk.  From that position, the germinating seed will send aerial roots to the ground and then send branches to the canopy.  Once the seedling has reached the canopy and has the opportunity to absorb the highly-coveted sunlight, the aerial roots continue to multiply, eventually surrounding the host tree.  These roots grow and begin to constrict the trunk of the host tree, slowly and quietly strangling the water and nutrient transportation inside the trunk.  At the same time, the Strangler Fig’s branches are intertwining with the host branches and snatching up sunlight. 

 

 

Eventually the host tree will die and will rot inside the surrounding shell of the Strangler Fig roots.  Sometimes, Strangler Figs will fill this internal tunnel with more roots completing its victory.  The amazing, yet murderous Strangler Fig can become the grandest tree in the forest because of its cleverly adapted lifestyle.

 

 
Amazing! Don't you think?!

 

All forests have plants, but the richness of the tropical rainforest sets it apart from most other habitats.  With over 13,020 plant species in the tropical rainforests of Costa Rica, the diversity there is leaps and bounds over temperate forests.  Since there are simply too many to discuss, here we focus on only a couple of different plants and plant types that play a significant role in the tropical rainforest community.
 


photo M. Noonan


photo M. Noonan

 

Trees from the genus Cecropia are relatively easy trees to find in Neotropical forests.  Not only are they somewhat common, but they have a characteristic open growth form that includes widely spaced branches and large leaves that only grow at the ends of branches.  For this reason, one of the famous creatures of the Neotropical forests can be found often in these trees, the sloth.  At one time there was a myth that sloths only ate Cecropia tree leaves, but it has now been determined that the relatively leaf-free branches of a Cecropia tree just provide a better environment for us to spot sloths.

 


photos M. Noonan


Considering that the Cecropia trees don’t have the characteristic thick, light absorbing foliage of most rainforest trees, how do they do so well?  One reason may be contributed to another creature which can be found in Cecropia trees, the Azteca ant.  At the base of the leaves there is a small opening which allows these ants to enter the bamboo like trunk which has large hollow chambers.  The Cecropia trees also produce specialized structures called trichilia and Mullerian bodies which provide nutrients to the ants. 


So far, the ants have benefited from the Cecropia trees, but how do the trees benefit from the ants?  The Azteca protect the tree from insects which would feed on the leaves or wood.  If a large disturbance occurs, the Azteca will stream out from the inside of the tree and try to defend their home with their tough jaws and caustic chemical secretions.

 


photos M. Noonan


Now just as the sloth is not dependant on Cecropia trees, Cecropia are not dependant on the Azteca.  But the symbiotic relationship has improved the tree’s defenses against predators and has created a home for these valiant ants. 

Epiphytes are simply defined as any plant that grows attached to another plant or object merely for physical support.  Simplistic epiphytes like lichens, moss, and algae can be found in temperate forests, but more complex epiphytes seem to dominate the plant world of a tropical rainforest.  Epiphytes are responsible for much of the plant diversity in the tropics and include ferns, mosses, cacti, orchids, and bromeliads.  In particular, the orchids and tank bromeliads have particularly interesting stories to tell.


There are over 1,400 different species of orchids in the small Central American nation of Costa Rica.  Most are epiphytic and do not connect to the soil and therefore must find innovative ways to store and maintain water.  Orchids can develop bulbous stems and thick leaves to hold water.  Also, they have developed an interesting schedule of only opening the small holes (stomata) in their leaves during the night when it is less hot and more humid.  This adaptation (Crassulacean acid metabolism) reduces the evaporation rate of the water and is not used in most plants.


The tank bromeliads have also found an interesting way to collect, store and maintain water.  They have evolved into a bushel-like form with long, crescent shaped leaves which funnel towards the center stem.  Where all these leaves converge, up to two gallons of water can be stored.  Interestingly enough, these pools of water are not only beneficial to the tank bromeliad, but also provide safe, fish free breeding water for frogs!


photos M. Noonan
 

CAC is a program of the Institute for the Study of Human-Animal Relations at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY.