Killing Me Softly, or, The Fatal Embrace of the Strangler Fig

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Strangler Figs

A.K.A.: Ficus species

Vital Stats:

  • There are around 800 sp. of figs, over half of which are hemi-epiphytes, like stranglers
  • Around 10% of all vascular plants are epiphytes (about 25,000 species)
  • The trees which produce the figs we eat are terrestrial, and do not grow in other trees

Found: Tropical forests of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Australia

It Does What?!

What does it take to squeeze the life out of a full-grown tree? A lot of time and some very long roots, apparently. Many parasites eventually bring about the untimely death of their hosts, but few do it as slowly and as insidiously as the strangler fig.

Stranglers begin life as a tiny seed that leaves the back end of a bird and happens to land on a tree branch high in the rainforest canopy. The seed germinates, and the young fig begins to grow as an aerial plant, or epiphyte, taking its moisture from the air and its nutrients from the leaf litter on its branch. Thousands of plant species, including most orchids, grow in this manner. But then an odd thing begins to happen. The seedling produces a single long root. Very long. From tens of metres up in the canopy, this root grows all the way down to the ground. Many young stranglers will die before their questing root reaches the earth, but for those that make it, a connection is formed with the soil through which water and nutrients can be extracted. From this point on the great, towering giant which holds this tiny little interloper is in mortal danger.

The strangler fig, playing “harmless epiphyte.”
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

A secure connection to the soil allows the fig to speed up its growth and to begin sending more and more roots earthward. Rather than dropping straight down, like the initial root, these later organs will twine around the bark of the host tree. At first, the roots are tiny, like mere vines crawling over the host trunk. Over time, however, they thicken, covering more and more of the trunk’s surface. Where they touch or overlap, the roots actually fuse together, forming a mesh over the surface of the bark. Up above, the stem of the strangler is growing as well. It rises through and above the host branches, soaking up the light and leaving the other tree shaded and starved for energy.

In fact, this is a war fought on two fronts. As the starving host tree struggles to gather light energy to send downward from the leaves, it is also increasingly unable to bring water up from its roots. This is because the tree’s trunk continues to expand even as the strangler’s grip grows tighter around it. These opposing forces effectively girdle the tree, crushing the vascular tissues that carry moisture from the soil. Eventually, the battle is lost and the tree dies. Fortunately for the fig, its major investments in root growth have paid off – the dead host tree does not fall, taking the strangler with it. Instead, it simply rots where it stands. Finally, many years after its arrival on the scene, the strangler fig has achieved independence. It is now a free-standing tree, completely hollow and supported by its interwoven lattice of aerial roots.

The first root finds the ground.
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

So what happens when more than one strangler fig seed lands on a particular tree? Something quite unique… the roots of the different individuals fuse and form an organism which is indistinguishable from a single tree, except by molecular testing. These are what biologists refer to as ‘genetic mosaics.’ What’s more, the individuals actually begin to act like a single tree. You see, figs typically have staggered flowering times, such that it is unlikely for numerous trees in a small area to be in bloom at the same time. This helps in keeping their wasp symbionts well nourished. Once trees fuse, however, they seem to become physiologically linked as well, with researchers reporting that they bloom as a single individual.

The most hurricane-proof tree ever.
(Screenshot from The Private Life of Plants, BBC)

[Fun Fact: Some strangler fig species have very high growth rates, and huge individuals have actually been found engulfing abandoned buildings in the tropics.]

Says Who?

  • Harrison (2006) Journal of Tropical Ecology 22(4): 477-480
  • Perry & Merschel (1987) Smithsonian 17: 72-79
  • Schmidt & Tracey (2006) Functional Plant Biology 33: 465-475
  • Thomson et al. (1991) Science 254: 1214-1216
Don’t meditate under strangler figs.
(Via: Flickr, by vincenzooli)
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EVOLUTION TAG TEAM, Part 1: Acacia Domatia

The first in an ongoing series of biology’s greatest duos. (Here’s Part 2 and Part 3)

Home, Sweet Home.
(via: Flickr)

Common Name (Plants): Bullhorn Acacias, Whistling Thorns

  • A.K.A.: Acacia cornigera, Acacia drepanolobium, and several other Acacia species

Common Name (Ants): Acacia Ants

  • A.K.A.: Pseudomyrmex and Crematogaster species

Found: Central America (Bullhorn Acacias) and East Africa (Whistling Thorns)

It Does What?!

Life as a tree is tough, particularly when you live in a part of the world that’s home to the biggest herbivores on Earth and happen to have delicate, delicious leaves. Such is the case for the African acacias. Without sufficient defences, they’d be gobbled up in no time by elephants, rhinos, and giraffes. The trees are known for having huge, sharp thorns, but even that’s sometimes not enough; the lips and tongues of giraffes are so tough and dexterous, they can often strip the leaves right out from between the thorns. So what’s a stressed acacia to do? Recruit a freaking army, that’s what.

Pseudomyrmex ferruginea: the giraffe’s worst enemy.
(Photo by April Nobile)

A few species of acacia in both Africa and Central America (where the herbivores are smaller, but no less voracious) have developed a symbiosis wherein they enjoy the services of ant colonies numbering up to 30,000 individuals, tirelessly patrolling their branches 24 hours a day. Should a hungry elephant or goat wander up and take a bite, nearby patrol ants will call in reinforcements and soon the interloper will be utterly overrun with angry, biting ants. What’s more, the protection extends beyond just animal threats. The ants will go so far as to kill other insects, remove fungal pathogens from the surface of the tree and even uproot nearby seedlings because, you know, they might eventually steal some sunlight from the beloved acacia.

“Trespassers Will Be Drawn and Quartered”
(via Wikimedia Commons)

So what do the troops get out of this? Quite a bit, actually. In ant-protected acacias (‘myrmecophytes’, they’re called), the thorns that normally grow at the base of a leaf swell up. In the Central American species, they grow into something that looks like a bull’s horn (hence their common name), while the African ones become more bulbous. These specialized structures, called domatia, are hollow inside and serve as very convenient housing for the ants. What’s more, the trees produce not one, but two different kinds of nourishment for the colony- regular, and baby food. The adult ants will feed from a sweet liquid exuded by nectaries on the branches. Meanwhile, on the tips of the tree’s leaflets, small white structures called Beltian bodies are formed which are high in the protein every growing child ant-larva needs. These are collected by workers and inserted right into the larval pouches, to be eaten before the ants are even fully formed.

The Bullhorn Acacia, now with more Beltian bodies!
(via Flickr)

Sounds like the perfect partnership, right? Usually, yes, but in nature, a symbiosis is only a symbiosis until one side figures out how to take advantage of the other. From the ants’ side, for example, any energy spent by the tree on reproduction is energy not spent on new homes and sweet, sweet nectar for them. Therefore, the ants will sometimes systematically nip all the flowers off the tree as it attempts to bloom. They’ll also prune the acacia’s outward growth if those new shoots may come into contact with a neighbouring tree, allowing invasion by another ant colony. Conversely, if herbivores become scarce and the acacia no longer requires such a strong protection force, it will begin to produce fewer domatia and less nectar in a move to starve some of the ants out. This has been shown to actually be a bad strategy for the acacia, since the soldiers, not to be outsmarted by a tree, turn to farming and begin raising sap-sucking insects on the bark, thereby getting their sugar fix anyway. And so it goes, oscillating between advantageous partnership and opportunistic parasitism… like so many things in life.

The roomier, more spacious African domatium.
(Image by Martin Sharman)

[Side note: While I’ve never personally encountered ant-acacias, I have disturbed an ant-protected tree of another family in the rainforests of Guyana, and can attest to the fact that the retaliation was both swift and intense. I was in a small boat at the edge of a river collecting botanical specimens, and I nearly jumped in the river to escape the onslaught. Don’t mess with ants.]

Says Who?

  • Clement et al. (2008) Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 62: 953-962.
  • Frederickson (2009) American Naturalist 173(5): 675-681.
  • Huntzinger et al. (2004) Ecology 85(3): 609-614.
  • Janzen (1966) Evolution 20(3): 249-275.
  • Nicklen & Wagner (2006) Oecologia 148: 81-87.
  • Stapley (1998) Oecologia 115: 401-405.

The Stinging Tree, or, Australia Hates Mammals

Can’t Touch This
(via: anhs.com.au)

Common Name: Stinging Tree, Gympie-Gympie

A.K.A.: Dendrocnide moroides

Found: Rainforests of Northeastern Australia

It Does What?!

Australia, which was apparently intended only for the very bravest of human beings, is home to many of the world’s most poisonous snakes, spiders, and scorpions. Even the surrounding ocean is exceptional for the number of ridiculously venomous species it contains. Still, a person could be forgiven for thinking that, so long as they stay out of the water and keep away from the creepy-crawlies, they’ll be okay. Ha ha ha… nope. In Australia, everything is out to get you.

Meet Gympie-Gympie, the Stinging Tree (or to be more accurate, stinging shrub). Growing in rainforest clearings and along creek edges- anywhere the canopy is broken- this two metre (6.5ft) high plant has large, heart-shaped leaves and juicy purple fruit. And every square centimetre of it, from the soil on up, is covered in tiny, poison-filled hypodermic needles. These hollow silicon needles are delicate enough to break off at the slightest touch, leaving them embedded in the skin of whatever creature was unfortunate enough to do so. The skin will often then close over them, making the needles nearly impossible to remove. The substance they’re filled with is a very potent neurotoxin with a very long shelf life- herbarium specimens of the plant collected in 1910 are still able to cause pain. And since the body is unable to break down silicon, this all adds up to a very long punishment for a very small mistake.

Go on, I dare you.
(Photo by Melanie Cook)

A brief brush against a stinging tree produces intense pain that peaks after about half an hour, but can literally take years to subside completely. Numerous dogs and horses have died because the pain was so intense. There is even one official record of a human having died- a Dutch botanist of the 1920s. Oddly enough, no actual tissue damage is done by the neurotoxin- death due to the plant is attributed to heart failure due to the shock of the pain, described by one researcher, Dr. Marina Hurley, as “like being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.” An ex-serviceman who fell right into one of the trees while crossing a creek in the 1940s describes having had to be tied down to his hospital bed for three weeks because the discomfort was so intense. One intrepid/insane researcher actually purified the neurotoxin and injected himself with it, suffering terribly and thereby proving that the toxin, rather than the needles, causes the majority of the pain. But not all of it… simply standing near a gympie-gympie for an extended period can cause allergic reactions and nosebleeds as the needles are shed in the wind.

“I eat neurotoxins for breakfast.”
(Via: Billabong Sanctuary)

So this must be just about the best herbivore-defence system ever, right? Amusingly, no. The trees still undergo heavy damage due to hungry spiders, ants, snails, and especially beetles, all of which can avoid its defences. The tree is even prey to one species of marsupial, the red-legged pademelon, which is either immune to the neurotoxin or has enormous pain tolerance. So why develop this extensive arsenal if it’s completely ineffective? One expert has suggested that it may have evolved to protect the plants from the now long-extinct giant Diprotodonts which once inhabited the Australian rainforest, making it one more dangerous relic of a long-ended war. You win, stinging tree, you win.

[Fun Fact: The best way to attempt to remove some of those poisonous silicon needles embedded in your arm?  Wax hair removal strips, according to the Queensland ambulance service.]

Says Who?