In the dark of the Amazon forest, where competition for light among flora is fierce, some plant species have developed remarkable strategies to ensure that they thrive. One of the most extraordinary trees found in the forests of South America is the strangler fig.
Known in Peru as “matapalos” (“tree killers”) strangler figs are members of the highly successful Ficus genus, which has more than 850 members in tropical and subtropical forests throughout the world. At least 150 different species of strangler fig are found in the forests of the Amazon.
The strangler fig has one of the most unusual life cycles of any of the more than 16,000 tree species in South America’s Amazon basin. Strangler figs are hemiepiphytes, plants that spend part of their lifecycle as epiphytes. Rather than beginning its existence as a seed in the relatively nutrient-poor soil of the forest floor, the strangler fig tree starts life high in the forest canopy. When its sticky seeds, often dispersed by birds, become lodged in the cracks and clefts of its host tree’s bark, they take advantage of the extra light found so far above ground level and quickly germinate.
Drawing its nutrients from the air, water and surrounding organic debris during this initial stage in its development, the strangler fig is one of the rainforest’s fastest growing trees. The strangler fig sapling grows to form leaves and branches that reach upward towards the light, while simultaneously producing aerial roots that travel downward, enveloping the host tree as they stretch inexorably to the ground, where they will finally be able to take nutrients from the soil.
The roots of the strangler fig wrap themselves around the host tree, gradually forming a kind of lattice frame that completely surrounds the host’s trunk. Once the roots of the strangler fig reach the ground, its growth accelerates as it plunders the nutrients and moisture that the host tree depended upon for its survival. And as the strangler fig’s own foliage spreads upward, it begins to overshadow the host’s crown, cutting it off from life-giving sunlight.
Eventually, the host tree will die. But by this time the strangler fig is large and strong enough to flourish independently. And so, the strangler fig is left standing, with its hollow trunk the only surviving evidence of the host tree’s passing. In areas of Amazon forest that have been exploited intensively by loggers, often strangler figs are the only trees left untouched, because their gnarled and knotted trunks make them unsuitable for exploitation.
While strangler fig trees can prove deadly to their hosts, they also play an important role within tropical and subtropical forest ecosystems. Many strangler figs function as what is known as a “keystone” species, by providing a habitat for many hundreds of species of invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, rodents and bats. And of course, particularly at those times of the year when other food sources may be scarce, forest species including primates and birds are attracted by the tasty fruit of strangler figs, which the trees produce in large quantities, with each fruit packed with seeds that will be dispersed by the animal that consumes it.
In Tambopata National Reserve and our own Tambopata Private Conservation Area, visitors can see and photograph a number of strangler fig species at different stages in their dramatic lifecycle. In the Condenado oxbow lake area, our Ecolodge guests can climb inside the huge hollow core of a strangler fig that has taken over its host.