Matapalo, Predatory Trees

This is the Spanish name in Latin American for the Strangler Fig (genus: Ficus) that translates literally in to “kill stick”, but means ‘Tree Killer’. There are 900 species of fig trees and all of which are believed to produce fruit similar to the figs you can buy in a western supermarket. These trees though have evolved an inventive way to obtain space in crowded rainforests, by killing other trees.

Unlike most plants, these pioneering plants begin germinating above ground as epiphytes. The fruits we are familiar with are eaten by many monkeys, birds and bats who defecate the tiny seeds in the upper strata where they live. The seeds have a sticky coat that helps them to cling to the foliage and begin to grow in the animals rich deposit, the successful normally finding roost in the crotch of a tree where composting leaf litter gathers. This parasitic plant then drops vine-like aerial roots to the ground, only stopping momentarily if they finds more nutrient rich deposits to tap into.

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A triumphant Matapalo is hollow.

Once the plant reaches the ground it develops a root and fungal mycelia network as do other plants, but this triggers a change of tactics. The plant then grows upwards as fast as possible, it’s leaves following the sun in the sky like sunflowers. This growing strategy gives the Matapalo a competitive edge over other trees in that it begins in the sun bathed upper reaches of the canopy and has not had to invest in a massive trunk to get there. It instead uses the host tree’s trunk for support and soon it grows it’s own massive canopy that overshadows that of the involuntary surrogate. As the roots continue to grow and encounter each other, they graft together to form a tight sheath. This strangles the host, reducing its ability to transport nutrients to it’s crown. The roots of the Matapalo slowly meld together to form its own trunk and the host tree eventually dies.

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The host crumbles and makes a soft bed.

These trees are some of the tallest in the rainforest. Their infancy is hard to imagine when you see their mature states and only when you study it’s improbably twisted trunk that is the legacy of it’s host resistance, can you appreciate the mortal competition that occurred. Often when forest is cleared by loggers, these trees are the only ones left which exaggerates their killer nature. The reason for this though is that their lumber is of poor quality for anything other than firewood and that they are so massive that is not worth cutting them down.

They do however bring life to the forest, not only in the bounty of fruit they provide but the nooks and crannies of its gnarled trunk provides habitat for numerous species of insects, amphibians, reptiles and birds. Few other trees provide so much to the local fauna, likely more so than the tree that once occupied that space.

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