The giant kapok tree, the creeping aroids, and other resident architects of the Amazon rainforest
Just try to find two trees of the same species within a few minutes in the Amazon rainforest, and the term ‘massive biodiversity’ will take a new meaning: you keep walking across different species. Just the western part of the Amazon River Basin has the highest diversity of trees in the world1.
Many species, few specimensTropical rainforests set records in biodiversity: anywhere between 40 to 100 species of tree can be found in a 1-hectare plot of land. Take the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in the Amazon floodplain forests of Peru, as an example. There, at least 1,856 species of higher plants have been discovered2.
The Amazon is home to as many as 80,000 plant species from which more than 40,000 species play a critical role in regulating the global climate and sustaining the local water cycle.3 But the richness of species is one thing, and abundance another. While there may be many species in tropical rainforests, these often exist in low numbers over large areas.
Amazon plants and trees play critical roles in regulating the global climate and sustaining the local water cycle. The forests they form are home to the huge variety of animals found in the Amazon.
But their greatest riches yet may be the compounds they produce, some of which are used for medicine and agriculture. For Amazon people, both indigenous and recent arrivals, plants are a food source and raw matter for non-timber forest products.
A tight arms race between Amazon plants and invertebratesBecause most rainforest insects feed on plants, these have had to evolve survival abilities to defend themselves. Such techniques involve secreting toxic compounds that will repel the attackers … who in turn evolve abilities to exploit other weak points in the plant.
Harsh soil conditions for Amazon plantsBecause of the incessant rain that beats down on the Amazon rainforest, soils are generally poor in nutrients. In such harsh environments, plants cannot afford the additional threat of being devoured by voracious insects. To defend themselves, they have evolved an amazing range of strategies and tools.4
The plant defence systems
The brazil-nut tree is found on floodplains and terra firma, where it tends to be widely spaced. It is noted for the absence of buttresses and propping roots, which are replaced by surface and underground roots. The nuts are harvested throughout the Amazon region, and are reportedly tasty, but high in fat content.
EpiphytesSome plants have evolved to the point that they simply do not need to grow on the forest floor – instead, they live on other plants. Such plants are called epiphytes, and in lowland tropical rainforests they may represent up to one-fourth of all plant species.6
Epiphytes encompass a wide range of plants: some ferns, orchids, cacti and mosses have the ability to live virtually in mid-air. They trap the little soil they need, which is carried by the wind, and this helps them develop roots and a litter base on tree branches.
BromeliadsIn addition to their terrestrial forms, bromeliads also occur as epiphytes in rainforests, where they accumulate rainfall water and detritus in their cup-like structures.
Tree frogs, snails and other species have evolved to complete part of their development in these structures, which afford them the perfect place at a vulnerable stage in their development. As many as 250 tree frogs, snails, and other species are known to use bromeliads for such purposes.7
Other plants that are common both as creepers and epiphytes in the Amazon are the aroids, which include philodendrons. These plants begin life on the ground and grow as a tendril that goes up tree trunks and attaches to them by aerial roots. They eventually lose their ground roots and become climbing epiphytes.
PalmsA majority of palms are easily identified by their distinct shape. Many have commercial value, for example to make brooms, hammocks, necklaces and string bags.
One palm species - (or tucum) - is used for its oil and is said to have three times more Vitamin A than carrots as well as other nutrients8. African oil palm is cultivated on an increasingly large scale, posing threats to native rainforests that are cleared in the process.
VinesVines are some of the elements that give rainforests their characteristic dense appearance. Apart from their structural role, they are essential food and "highways" for Amazon wildlife.
Vines encompass a variety of plants, including lianas that hang from the treetops, bole climbers, which ascend tree trunks and stranglers, which wrap themselves around trees and sometimes choke them. They are present in both disturbed areas exposed to light and in forest interiors, and regardless of soil type. Humans have long used vines for food, medicine, hallucinogens, poisons and construction materials.9
2Foster, 1990a in Kricher, 1997
3Morales, K., & Vinicius, T. 2003. . , 13, pp 386-7
4National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/03/
0307_050307_insects.html. Accessed: 06/10/05
5National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/03/
0307_050307_insects.html. Accessed: 06/10/05
6Klinge , 1975 in Kricher, 1997
7Burt-Utley, 1983 in Kricher, 1997
8Balick, 1985 in Kricher, 1997
9Phillips, 1991 in Kricher, 1997
Project Amazonas. .http://www.projectamazonas.com/resources-flora%20&%20fauna.htm. Accessed: 11/10/05.