Strangler tree’s dirty work provides unique home to forest creatures

The author stands in the now friendly confines of the strangler fig tree in the Monteverde cloud forest. Photo by Bill Allen

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — One animal’s feces could become another animal’s fortress — in the cloud forest, that is.

Take the case of the strangler fig tree and the porcupine.

In this region, animals of all shapes and sizes consume fig fruits —actually a cluster of flowers or synconium. Through excretion, some seeds end up atop the branches of mature trees.

With only 2 percent of sunlight reaching the forest floor, trees and other plants have an incentive to grow on other trees to absorb as much sunlight as possible, sometimes at the expense of preexisting trees.

The strangler fig tree belongs to a group called epiphytes — plants that grow on other plants. They have the ability to germinate at the top of trees in branches where sunlight remains most abundant and also where excretion containing the fig seeds may land. In most cases, strong winds knock down these branches before the seeds have germinated.

But with adequate nutritional availability and a tree branch that survives long enough for the fig to grow to its full size— usually 60 to 80 years — a germinating strangler fig seed may begin to extend its roots downward.

By wrapping its roots around the host tree and absorbing its nutrients, the strangler tree eventually cuts off all nutrition to the host tree. The host tree dies and decays, leaving a hollow trunk to signal the strangler’s success.

Within the trunk’s dark cave organisms such as porcupines and snakes may take up residence, but only until the next predator threatens the stability of this new ecosystem.

This biological process present in the cloud forest demonstrates the interconnectedness of nature’s living organisms. Through these interactions, plants exhibit the same fight for survival prevalent among animals of the cloud forest as well.

— Gaby Ramirez

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