Tag Archives: canopy ecology

Stranglehold

Ficus. Its name is synonymous with low-maintenance, unobtrusive office plants. But in the wide Ficus genus, there are a few species of fig trees that are anything but tame. In fact, they have a predilection for death and domination. This story is about two distinctly different creatures whose lives are inextricably linked: the strangler fig and the fig wasp. It is a story about sex and murder in Florida. Mostly, it is a story about the mentality and biology of control. One of these partners-in-crime kills by slowly choking the life from its victims, and the other is its accomplice, furthering its domination of the forest with rape and incest. To be sure, you’ll never look at Fig Newtons the same way again.

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The Fish That Climb Trees

All children are essentially monkeys. Ever since I was tall enough to reach the lowermost branches of a tree and strong enough to swing myself up, arboreal life was the life for me. I remember climbing the mastheads of swaying pines, reading books in the crooked elbows of maples, and challenging myself to steal the most unreachable apples. I felt safer in trees; they seemed less like a high wire and more like a net to me. They held me safely out of sight of real siblings and imaginary enemies. They put me closer to the birds I loved. Throughout my childhood, I felt myself pulled up into the treetops by some plant magnetism, and pushed up there by some rambunctious animal urge.

I may need a boost.

I want to go to there.

When I went to college, I decided to study canopy ecology. And one of the things that sparked my interest was a story I heard from a professor about fish living in the trees. It went like this: when the Amazon River floods, the water level can rise enough to temporarily cover the lower branches of trees. Small fish, my professor told me, will sometimes lay their eggs in the submerged bromeliads on the tree branches, and when the floodwaters subside, the eggs hatch in a leafy fishbowl of water, replenished by rain and oxygenated by the plants themselves. Voila, fish in the trees.

Of course, I can find ZERO evidence to support this claim. And if fish ever do wind up imprisoned in tree branches, it would be by accident; after all, guppy fry in an epiphyte would soon make a nice snack for a hungry coati. But it turns out that there are a few fish in the world who head for the trees on purpose. Their existence challenges the public preconception about the definition of “fish,” and serves to help us understand the soul of a tree.

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Drunken Monkeys!

Good morning, sunshine. Or is it afternoon already? Did you have fun last night? How’s your head? Yep, you know you’re not supposed to mix tequila with Kahlua. I’m going to take advantage of this excruciatingly bright day in New Mexico to discuss a subject close to my heart, my aching brain, and my liver: Alcohol tolerance and abuse in the animal kingdom.

One of the many great things about booze is that it occurs naturally in the wild. Fermentation, the process by which a yeast transforms sugar into alcohol (and its by-product, carbon dioxide), needs no brewmaster or whiskey still. Yeast is blowing freely in the wind, and wild grapes were turning to wine long before we were cultivating chardonnay. Nutritionally speaking, alcohol is a double-edged sword: it’s extremely energy-rich, but it’s also toxic and makes you fall down. So it makes sense that animals which eat fruit would develop a tolerance to alcohol, gaining its energy while avoiding getting so drunk that they start hitting on their predators at the bar. (Or, if you’re a fruit bat, flying into a tree.) And the tolerance these animals have for liquor would put the most gin-blossomed tippler to shame.

Meet the greatest drinker in the world: the pen-tailed tree shrew. This tiny, unassuming nocturne from the rainforests of Southeast Asia may not look like a heavyweight, but pound-for-pound, it could drink you under the table. After all, it subsists entirely on a diet of palm nectar which is fermented by wild yeast to a fine 3.8 alcohol content. To mimic the tree shrew, you’d have to survive on only beer for your entire life. (Which is technically possible, I’ve heard from a bartender friend, but not recommended.) Despite consuming what would be, for us, the equivalent of nine glasses of wine a day, and having a blood alcohol level that is constantly above any country’s legal limit, the tree shrew remains sober. How it metabolizes its alcohol so efficiently is still a mystery, but scientists believe that the answer, when found, could present us with a cure for alcohol poisoning, and perhaps a weapon against alcoholism. Right now, most alcohol research is done on lab rats, and rodents tend to avoid alcohol by preference. But the tree shrew actually resembles the earliest primates on a taxonomic level, and could give us insight into our own alcohol tolerance and predilections. What’s more, we’re not the only primates out there that like to hit the sauce.

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The Komodo At The End Of The Fork

This Spring, a giant monitor lizard was discovered in the Phillipines. It is beautiful, flecked with both green and gold scales. Like its close cousin, the komodo dragon, it is huge — 6 feet long and 22 lbs — and has a double penis. Unlike the komodo, it is entirely vegetarian, peacefully stalking fruit in the treetops.

We’ll call it by its scientific name, Varanus bitatawa, because its English name, the Northern Sierra Madre Forest monitor lizard, is kind of a mouthful. That a six-foot golden lizard could remain hidden to science for so long is surprising, but the reasons fit a few familiar patterns.

1. V. bitatawa is arboreal, spending no more than 20 minutes a day on the ground. If you want to find a new species, look up or look down. The forest canopy and the deep ocean are the undiscovered continents, the vertical frontiers of biology, and it makes sense that most new terrestrial animals are found above us, where it hurts our necks to look. In fact, a host of new creatures were recently discovered in the treetops of Papua New Guinea, including the world’s smallest wallaby and a “pinocchio” frog with an inflatable nose. It is amazing how many big, obvious things can be obscured in the mess of capillaries at the ends of the Earth’s blood.

2. But when I said it was “discovered” this Spring, I lied. It was “discovered” by science recently, but it was known to natives for countless generations, as a delicious meal. In fact, it was a picture of locals posing with their lizard lunch, taken in 2001, that prompted the expedition to find it. And this is the larger truth: If it’s out there, we’ve probably eaten it. If not us, something else. Hunger is the great explorer. It causes us to try poisonous plants and strangely-colored bugs, and learn about our environment that way. Knowing what to eat, and what not to eat, is the most practical application of biology. People who know how to hunt and forage have a far more intimate knowledge of their surroundings, and often — but not always — a greater understanding of their workings. So epicureanism — food appreciation and adventurism — isn’t too far from the science of biology, an expedition on the dinner table. Hunger makes you a keen observer. Hunger makes you a scientist. If you want to find a new species of rodent, follow a hawk. If you want to find new mushrooms, follow a wild pig. I think we will soon recognize that the quickest path to finding out the secrets of the Earth is the oldest and most direct. To find the hidden creatures in a forest, ask the locals what’s on the menu.


Airbenders

The origins of flight are debated, but one thing is certain: it began as gliding. And, most likely, it began as gliding from tree to tree in the forest canopy. As of yet, there are only two ways to truly fly: have wings on the back (like insects), or wings on the forelimbs (like birds and bats). But nature is constantly innovating, finding new ways to get high. Today, we look at some gliding prototypes being developed in the laboratory of the rainforest canopy, and imagining what kind of flying animals they might become.

The Prototype: Flying Dragon

I love animals that sound like kung fu moves. The flying dragon of Southeast Asia has developed a different way to glide: it extends flaps of skin connected to special, movable ribs to create “wings” in its midsection; its obvious advantage is that, unlike birds or flying squirrels, its arms and legs are free, so it can read the SkyMall catalogue. It’s able to glide about 25 feet, even executing a nifty little loop-de-loop to slow its descent near landing.

The Future Model: The Butterfly Lizard

Okay, gliding lizards have existed for 144 million years. So if this design could turn into powered flight, it probably would have by now. But if you gave the lizard a keel, the breastbone in birds to which the flight muscles attach, the flying dragon could conceivably evolve into a fluttering lizard with brightly-colored wings, making short, powered jumps upwards into the canopy to catch slow-moving insects in its elongated forearms.

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Shrooms

Fans of Ray Bradbury are going to love this one. The animal below is a bullet ant, a remarkable creature in its own right. But the weird animal of the day is not the ant, nor an animal at all, but a fungus. Specifically, the one growing out of the ant’s cranium.

Its name is Ophiocordyceps unilateris, a member of the larger cordyceps family of predatory fungi. This species preys specifically on the carpenter ant, which lives in the rainforests of Central America. Here’s its modus operandi: An ant will accidentally tread on a spore that’s been waiting on the forest floor. The spore attaches itself and sends out hyphae (the fungal equivalent of roots) that seek out a weak spot in the ant’s exoskeleton. Once found, the hyphae enter the body and penetrate the ant’s brain.
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Meditation on Slow Angels

Something you may know about me: in college, I was a botany major. Something you may not know about me: in my junior year, my concentration was in canopy ecology. My grand plan was to go climb trees in the rainforest and inspect the animal life living in epiphytic bromeliads. (I am somewhat off-track.) But last week I found a book my dad bought second-hand and forgot to give me for Christmas, Life Above the Jungle Floor, a travelogue by a canopy ecologist working in Costa Rica, and have been enjoying ever since. And this brings me to my latest “weird animal” post:


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