An Atheist Down Under Report: Strangler Figsby Don Lacey on Aug. 18, 2013, under Education, Environment, Evolution, Nature, Science, That's Life!
Greetings from Australia, I wrote this after I took some photos in one of our local wilderness Area. I hope you can use for the FA blog.
Our Amazing World: Strangler Figs
I recently had the opportunity to explore the Australia’s Nightcap National park, which is in a semi-tropical rainforest environment in Northern New South Wales. I got to see massive trees, staggering waterfalls and unique wildlife. It was a wonderful experience and I hope to return soon for further exploration. I find that often while exploring the natural world, I am amazed by things far more unique and fantastic than anything I could have dreamed up. This time it was an unusual, even freakish form of plant life called Ficus Watkinsiana, which is a variety of what is commonly known as a Strangler Fig. Strangler figs are parasites. Their seeds, which are often dispersed by birds, find their way into the crevices or bark of a host tree where they begin growing. The seedlings grow their roots downward eventually enveloping the host, while the rest of the parasite grows upward. As seen below.
The gradual takeover of the host plant is a slow process, that can take years to complete.
Once the takeover is complete the host is left dead and is completely enveloped by the strangler, which is now a free standing tree.
Sometimes the host dies and rots away, while the strangler fig is left living. The strangler is left an empty shell surrounding a hollow core. I was able to find one such empty shell large enough to enter. I took this photograph looking up at the canopy.
Despite the Strangler Fig’s parasitic nature, seeing them gives one a sense of an eerie otherworldly beauty. They are often a mess a taught roots and branches chaotically locked in a life or death struggle with their unfortunate victims.
There are several species of Strangler Fig that grow all over the tropical and semitropical regions of the world. There is even an American species the Florida Strangler Fig, which has been used in traditional medicine, as living fencing and for decorative purpose.
For those curious, Strangler Figs share a genus with the Common Fig, which may be one of the first plants domesticated by humans. This fig appears in stories in many of the world’s religions, including the story of Adam and Eve using it’s leaves to hide their nakedness and Jesus’ cursing of the Fig tree. It is also the source of the Chewy fruits people tend to think of as figs.
All species of fig rely on a symbiotic relationship with some 600 or more species of wasp that play an important role in their reproductive cycle. Fig wasp species tend to each specialize in a specific species of fig. The wasps pollinate the trees by climbing into a hole in special flowers where they lay their eggs. The flowers become the tree’s fruits. After hatching the young wasps fly out and to find another flowering Fig and complete the cycle.
In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, discusses the mutual dependency between the figs and wasps. He states that the fruits are not really fruits in the conventional sense but “indoor pollination chambers” whose walls are lined with incredibly tiny flowers, that only the very tiny wasps can access. The growing wasps then use flowers as a food source. If the adult wasp does not pollinate a sufficient number of flowers and lays too many eggs, the tree cuts off the development of that fig, killing the wasp’s larva. As the trees and wasps continually adapted in this symbiotic relationship both have become mutually dependent on each other. Unsurprisingly fig trees that are planted in places isolated from the wasps are unable to reproduce.
I find both the parasitism of Strangler figs as well as the unique symbiotic relationships all fig species have with wasps far more interested and intriguing than any of the stories involving these plants in the world’s holy books. All too often observation of the real world paints a far more amazing picture than received wisdom, about talking snakes and the like. For me this just one of many examples. This is Jim Wilson Signing out.