Palm trees (Arecaceae / Palmae) are an iconic and highly diverse group of tropical forest plants. In the Amazon forest, palms are among the most common tree species. In fact, six of the ten most common tree species in the Amazon rainforest are palms. In recent studies, scientists have found that palms are over five times more numerous in the Neotropical rainforests found in the Americas (including the Amazon basin) than in comparable Asian and African tropical and subtropical forests. It has been estimated that in the Americas, up to 60% of larger tree stems (exceeding 10 centimeters or 4 inches in diameter) are palms.
As a family, palms exhibit a variety of growth forms, ranging from small shrubs to lianas and large trees. In evolutionary, morphological and physiological terms, palms are distinct from other trees. In fact, palms are more closely related to grasses than to other trees.
Palm trees are more abundant in wetter areas with less fertile soils and shallower groundwater. With their many wetlands and areas of floodable forest, the diverse ecosystems of the forests of Tambopata offer ideal conditions for several palm tree species.
One species of palm tree visitors to Tambopata National Reserve are sure to see is the so-called macaw palm tree (Acrocomia aculeate).
Acrocomia aculeata is a species of palm tree native to the tropical regions of the Americas, and it is found all the way from Mexico and the Caribbean to the forests of Paraguay and northern Argentina. Across this palm tree’s vast natural range, the common names used to identify the species vary. In Central America, it is known as the coyol palm, and in Nicaragua and Honduras its sap has been used for centuries to produce so-called “coyol wine”.
In Peru, including the southeastern forests bordering Brazil and Bolivia where at Tambopata Ecolodge we have been running our own ecotourism based conservation initiative since 1991, Acrocomia aculeata is known as the “macaw palm”.
The macaw palm can grow up to 15 or 20 meters in height (50 to 65 feet) and its trunk may have a diameter of up to 50 centimeters (20 inches). The macaw palm protects its trunk with a series of sharp black spines that jut out and are up to 10 centimeters (4 inches) long. Its leaves are between 3 and 4 meters (10 to 13 feet) long, and the stalks of the leaf blades are also covered in sharp spines. The macaw palm’s flowers are small, and its fruit is a yellow-green color and measures around 2.5 to 5 centimeters in diameter (1 to 2 inches).
The inner fruit shell of the macaw palm is extremely difficult to break, and usually contains a single dark-brown, nut-like seed. The sweet kernel of this seed is white, and its taste is said to resemble that of coconut. In the mid-19th century, the English naturalist Henry Walter Bates noted how the hyacinth macaw, which has one of the most powerful beaks of any macaw species, was able to feed on the hard nuts of palms including Acrocomia aculeate, “crushing to a pulp” shells that “are so hard as to be difficult to break with a heavy hammer”.
More recent studies in the forests of Tambopata have discovered that the macaw palm attracts parrots that behave as they would at clay licks, by eating the palm tree itself. Scientists believe that these palms are rich in sodium, and that the birds have identified the macaw palm as a good source of this essential mineral that is believed to aid their digestive system.