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A Tree Grows in the Cloud Forest

April 20, 2022

There is much wisdom to be gleaned from the old expression admonishing us not to “miss the forest for the trees.” I think it probable that whoever first said that never made it to the cloud forests of Mindo. Here it is so difficult to miss the forest that I would say the opposite applies- don’t miss the trees for the forest. The vastness of the forest and density of life within are nearly impossible to comprehend. The feeling of first entering the cloud forest is akin to being swallowed by some strange, amorphous, green beast. The amount of life supported by each individual tree in the cloud forest is staggering.

Right in front of the lodge at Reserva las Tangaras we have a large tree that has served as a case study for us in the importance of every tree in the rainforest. 

Photo of “Our Tree”

One of the things that first struck me when I got to the cloud forest was the carpet of vegetation coating nearly every limb and trunk of every tree. These hanging gardens are composed of a huge variety of orchids, mosses, ferns, and bromeliads, to name a few. They adorn the forest with blossoms of every size and color. We refer to these plants as epiphytes which in Greek roughly means “upon plants” because that’s where they grow! These plants are remarkable for their ability to thrive suspended in the treetops away from the soil. Our tree is covered with so much moss that it looks like a melted candle, with large gobs of green dripping off its branches. This moss layer is vital in trapping the water necessary for the other epiphytes to take root and survive. Only in the cloud forests do epiphytes reach their full potential due to the copious amounts of rain they receive. 

In addition to epiphytes, our tree hosts plants that still need contact with the soil for survival. Most of these plants have fruit that are particularly delicious, luring birds and mammals to eat them. Their seeds have a tough and sticky exterior that helps them adhere to the upper branches of the trees as they are expelled from these animals in the form of scat. The seeds sprout in the treetops, and then send roots dropping down to the ground. These so-called aerial roots are the “vines” that’s most people imagine when they think of the jungle. Some of these plants, like the strangler figs, or matapalo in Spanish, are parasitic plants that send their roots winding down the trunk of the host tree and lianas winding up around the canopy, eventually smothering and killing it. Luckily for our tree, it doesn’t appear to be host to any of these yet. All these plants are simply vying for space up in the canopy where light is abundant. Epiphytes and aerial plants have found a way to reach the canopy without investing all the time and energy that trees require to grow.

The abundance of plant life is great news for the animals of the cloud forest. All these plants need to reproduce, and they do so by means of their flowers, fruits, and seeds which are important food sources for insects, birds, and mammals who are in turn food for reptiles, amphibians, bigger birds, and bigger mammals. Almost any time we look at the tree, there is some amount of movement from the animal life it draws in. A whole food web can be seen being played out in our front yard. 

A Masked Flowerpiercer dining on flowers of an aerial plant

Our tree also provides shelter for its many inhabitants. It is full of katydids and stick insects disguised to look like its leaves and twigs. Birds hide under its leaves during rain storms. Squirrels nestle in the crooks of its boughs. Under its bark is a network of insects and their larvae. There are species of frogs that use the pools of water that collect in bromeliads to raise their young, and others that simply use them as cool, damp, hiding places during the day. Our tree is basically a bustling metropolis, home to a community of animals of all sizes.

White-necked Jacobin relaxing in the branches

Looking out at the forest surrounding the reserve, it is hard to think that one tree being cut down would make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Surely all the animals would just move a few feet to the left or the right and find equally suitable places to live. On a small scale this may be true, but sadly in Ecuador approximately 198,000 hectares of rainforest are deforested a year. Averaging about 500 trees per hectare, that means about 99,000,000 trees like ours are cut down in Ecuador alone. The Chocó region of Ecuador, which includes our reserve, has already lost about 98% of its area. If the rate of deforestation doesn’t decrease, the entire country would be deforested in 30 years ( Facing these odds, our tree becomes an invaluable resource, because it and the other trees on our reserve are some of the last few refuges many of the amazing plants and animals of the cloud forest have to go.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 22, 2022 12:41 pm

    Great Earth Day topic, too. Nice work!


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