Unexpected structures and faces


One of many perfect forest forms ©Thea Powell

Listed here are some of the adaptations that strike me as ones might not assume to be in a tropical forest. The truth is, that until you come to a place like this, you have no idea what is considered normal. So enjoy some natural variations, which in my opinion are pretty cool…

For some more, see flickr.com/photos/ecology-pie/

1)    Pneumatophores ~ trees need to breath too.

Non looped pneumatophores ©Thea Powell

The trees and plants of a peat swamp forest have a problem which is pretty rare in our 21st century world. Plants are currently dealing with a lack of water (in both frequency and duration) and also declining insect pollination – two big problems. Spines exist to decrease water loss(1) as well as defend. Cunning human engineered irrigation systems allow many humans to be fed(2), and the poor old bees are just getting one hit after another(3).
However, here in a swamp forest, there is lots of water. So much water that the soil is (hopefully) waterlogged all year round. This consistent dampness means the decomposing community (mostly microscopic) are different to that in dry soil and use the little oxygen there is. This lack of oxygen in the soil means the soil is very acidic. No air in the soil means the trees have to think outside the box. Or in this case, outside the soil.

There are two key adaptations of trees here which help keep trees and the resulting forest alive. Buttress roots(4) have many a wonderful reason for being so large and awesome to look at. For one, they help stability without the roots having to grow too deep. The roots can stay shallow, growing along the top layers of the soil, allowing them access to oxygen despite the wet ground.

Secondly, pneumatophores(5) are the structures formed when roots come up, out from under the soil and loop over some distance above ground level. They are found in several families of epiphytes and trees. These roots allow the tree to breath. Some species even have visible holes in the bark, reminding me of spiracles in the sides of insects. Of course, these loops also double up as a major trip hassard, so the trees can put humans in their rightful place – a somewhat taxing secondary role to this architecture, so perfectly selected (not designed!) for their purpose.

2)    Think tropical. Think difficult environment for humans. Think thick forest and wildlife undisturbed. Think squirrels, pigs and pigeons? Yep – there are three genus of non-flying squirrel and several species of pigeon here. To be fair the squirrels are pretty big and have enough colours to warrant names like beautiful tree squirrels (Callosciurus spp.). The pigeons too, are pretty colours and a refreshing sight whilst you stare at plants in case they move. When I arrived, squirrels seemed the oddest thing to be here. Now they seem irreplaceable as a constant source of movement in the forest and annoyance to the primatology team. The bearded pigs (Sus barbatus) are large and are perfect browsers of food dropped by everything else – including us. Also I expect the clouded leopards appreciate a big bacon lunch sometimes.

3)    Tasiers are quite simply awesome. Sightings of the ‘horsfield’s tarsier’ (Cephalopachus bancanus)(6), or the ‘western tarsier’ are so rare that entire research projects have been about the locations in which they were not seen. They are aboreal mammals who may exist in their hundereds locally, but are usually nocturnal and can be as illusive as the grave.  It is the only member of the genus Cephalopachus. Their huge eyes, large hind leg muscles and long fingers are perfect for moving far, fast and precisely through the trees. Fun fact : their long legs even gave them their name, after the long tarsus bones of their feet.

Unexpected adaptation: They can turn their heads 360° – what fantastic camera men they would make! (Go on , imagine it… With a perfect mini camera set up… maybe a directors chair…)

Mata palanduk fungus ©Thea Powell/OuTrop

4)    One of under appreciated group – fungi. The fungi here literally tick all the boxes. Round fungi, flat fungi, ground fungi, tree (“bracket”) fungi, crispy fungi, jelly fungi, big fungi, micro fungi, white, yellow, brown, green, red – take your pick. Their diversity, along with the fact that they don’t run away , make fungi one of my favourite things to see whilst walking in the forest. Especially when they look like this … (Mata palanduk means ‘mouse deer eyes’ in Indonesian).

5)    Finally there are furry moths like mice and flying lizards. (Oh of course?! o_O)  I wont even attempt to guess why these characteristics are actually needed – perhaps mother nature got bored…

Maybe it is her cherry on the ecological pie 

Moth – if I got to name it “Furry mouse moth” ©Thea Powell/OuTrop

Links of interest , knowledge and power;

1) Adapting water resources management to global climate change

2) Managing soils for feeding a global population of 10 billion

3) The case of the empty hives and Habitat requirements of central European bees and the problems of partial habitats

4) The function of buttress roots: a comparative study of the anchorage systems of buttressed (Aglaia and Nephelium ramboutan species) and non-buttressed (Mallotus wrayi) tropical trees

5) Gas exchange and oxygen concentration in pneumatophores and prop roots of four mangrove species

6) The behavior of wild spectral tarsiers


2 responses to “Unexpected structures and faces

  1. Thank you for this and your previous posts. Very evocative of life in the peat swamp forest, and a wonderful insight for me into understanding the magic of the place and the world that my daughter Helen is now enjoying with OuTrop, as your latest kelasi project intern. Your ecological perspective is a joy. Do please keep blogging like this.

    • Dear Andrew,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I am glad you are enjoying my perspective.
      I really would like to keep the ecological instalments up to date – hopefully there will be regular stories!
      Helen and I are loving the work here. Do please keep reading! Best, Thea

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