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.
Tag Archives: canopy life
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.
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.
Imagine this: a chill Halloween night in Western Massachusetts, a cloud cutting across the full moon like a razor. Frost brightens the sky, and the trees in the apple orchards are decrepit, tortured skeletons of their daylight selves, holding the moonlight like a tulle veil. And from just beyond the trees, a howl rises like the fresh dead; a terrible, pipe-organ howl, voices sliding into each other on black-key notes, a chorus of the damned.
It was neither wolves, which have long been banished from New England, nor coyotes. It was the pack of New Guinea Singing Dogs kept at the farm on my college campus. I was a freshman then, the year we sold the Singing Dogs to a zoo because of noise complaints. They were a pet of two professors: one, an expert on canid evolution, and the other, a professor of animal behavior and bioacoustics. The mysterious and rarely-seen New Guinea Singing Dog is a fascinating species that is slowly helping scientists understand one of the most blood-curdling sounds in Animalia, and the reasons behind why, and how, we howl.