Story and Photos by Justin L. Stewart
MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — In Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the thin veil of “cat hair” floating through the air provides essential nutrients for the upper levels of the vibrant forest, located along the Cordillera de Tilarán mountain range.
Clouds drifting through the forest create a light mist, referred to by locals as cat hair due to its light weight and because it doesn’t dampen hikers’ clothing, says Victorino Molina, a nature guide at the reserve. While the cat hair doesn’t affect hikers clothing, it’s a source of nutrients for both the abundance of trees and the epiphytes that grow along their branches.
Epiphytes, which are smaller, non-parasitic plants that grow on other plants, are commonly found upon trees in the reserve and surrounding area. These plants act as food for future generations after they die, decaying into a rich layer of fertilizer on tree branches.
Roots can be seen hanging down like vines from trees as epiphytes seek additional nutrition from the forest floor.
In one case, the strangler fig tree starts as an epiphyte, its seed sprouting in a crevice of a large tree. The young fig slowly sends roots toward the forest floor. Once they reach it, they surround and suffocate the host tree, eventually choking the life out of the it. The strangler fig then stands on its own as the host tree decays away.
Plants classified as epiphytes include orchids, mosses and ferns. They are among the more than 3,000 plant species found in the reserve. These plants most often find their way into the trees through birds’ digestive tracts, though some are carried there by wind gusts.
Epiphytes contribute to 40 percent of the forest’s biomass. Much of their weight can come from their ability to hold water through long dry periods. This weight can sometimes be the downfall of trees, as the strong Costa Rican trade winds, referred to by locals as the alisios, cause them to snap under the pressure, pulling down any additional plant life caught between the tree and the forest floor.
The diversity of species of epiphytes helps make the Monteverde reserve one of the most biodiverse forests in the world.