Ecosystems on a Limb

By Daniela Vidal

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica-In Monteverde’s cloud forest, frogs lay their eggs in rather unexpected places: tree branches. This feat is only possible because of bromeliads, a species of epiphytes. Epiphytes are microecosystems vital to the cloud forest.

Making up 29 percent of the vegetation in Monteverde’s cloud forest, epiphytes are non-parasitic plants which live on a host species. They use the host for housing purposes, not nutritional purposes.  To survive, they create their own “top-soil” in the branches of the tree by absorbing moisture from the air and gathering nutrients from dead leaves and bird feces. This process takes a few years to complete.

“The soil can be a foot thick,” Marcos  Mendez, an INBio-certified, freelance tour guide, says.

This topsoil is home to hundreds of insects. “Frogs, snakes and birds are there [in the epiphytes] precisely because they feed on those things,”  Mendez, who works at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, says. “There are birds that specialize in catching what lives in the middle of epiphytes.”

Two of the most common epiphytes are orchids and bromeliads. Others include mosses and ferns.

Of the 878 species of epiphytes, 500 of those are orchids, according to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, giving Monteverde  one of the highest orchid diversities in the world.

Bromeliads, which are related to pineapples, have tightly wound leaves that act as water reservoirs. It is in this water that some frogs lay their eggs. When the tadpoles hatch, the bromeliads act as a safe place for them to await their mother’s return, food in tow.

“Epiphytes make the cloud forest special,” Mendez says.

Marcos Mendez shows how epiphytes grow on a fallen tree branch.

Marcos Mendez shows how epiphytes grow on a fallen tree branch. Photo by Stephanie Sidoti

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One thought on “Ecosystems on a Limb

  1. Debbie Allen says:

    Good detail, and interesting. Good luck with your future reporting from Costa Rica.

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