True or false? Figs contain dead wasps

Figs (Credit: Eric Hunt/Wikipedia - Creative Commons)

On a moonlit night in southern Africa a reproductive race is about to begin. The stakes are high but so are the risks. Most of the competitors will be dead or doomed by dawn. The starting line is a solitary fig tree whose gnarled form towers over a small stream. Figs hang in clumps from its branches like a plague of green boils. Tonight they erupt with life.

An insect emerges from a hole in one of the figs. She’s so small you could swallow her and not notice. She’s a fig-wasp with an urgent mission and her time is running out. All around her, thousands of her kind are crawling out of figs. Each one is a female with the same quest and each faces immediate danger.

So begins my new book’s chapter on fig-wasps, the tiny stingless insects that fig trees depend upon to pollinate their flowers and which can only breed inside figs. This 80-million-year-old partnership is a textbook example of species evolving together. Each of the 750-plus species of figs relies on its own species of fig-wasps, and vice versa.

My book shows how the world would be a very different place without fig-wasps. Hundreds of species of wild animal would go hungry, with knock-on effects for the thousands of other plant species whose seeds these animals disperse. Without fig-wasps there would have been no Ficus religiosa tree for the Buddha to sit beneath as he attained enlightenment. There would have been no fig leaves to protect the modesty of Adam and Eve, no banyan (Ficus benghalensis) to astound Alexander the Great.

Thanks to fig-wasps, fig trees and their figs have shaped the world about us and have influenced diverse human cultures in many remarkable ways. The best could be yet to come, as these species can be vital allies in our efforts to restore degraded rainforests. But when Ben Crair wrote about figs in the New Yorker this month, what caught the attention of many readers was his line: “When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing fig-wasp mummies, too.

While that is certainly true of the hundreds of wild fig species, we tend to eat figs of just one species: Ficus carica. This plant is among the first that people ever cultivated for food – several thousand years ago. Over that long history farmers bred some Ficus carica varieties that no longer need wasps to produce ripe figs. So, for those varieties, there’s no trace of a wasp. Great news for vegans!

Other Ficus carica varieties do need wasps to pollinate their flowers in order for them to develop seeds, then become sweet and ripe. But as Anna Rothschild explains so well in her new Gross Science video (below), the wasps are so small and so few that you really won’t notice them.

Rest assured, when you bite into a fig, any crunch comes from fig seeds not wasp corpses.

*My book will be published in the UK (and ebook) on 8 September 2016 as Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future. A North American edition, entitled Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees is out in November 2016.

 

One book. Two titles. Coming soon. Get them while they’re hot.

two-covers

Nearly 20 years after I started putting ideas down on paper, my book is finally here. The UK title is Ladders to Heaven. It is available from 8 September 2016 as a hardback or ebook, and can be pre-ordered from Amazon, Unbound, and all good book stores.

Later this year, Chelsea Green Publishing will bring out an edition for the US and Canada, with the new title Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. It is also available to pre-order from Amazon.

If you can’t wait, then I recommend journalist Ben Crair’s article Love the Fig, which The New Yorker published last week. It includes some quotes from me. I was also talking figs last week on BBC Radio 4’s comedy chat show The Museum of Curiosity. You can listen to the show online here until about 15 September.

Lastly, here is a preview of the text for back of the book, and below that a photo of the first batch of books themselves. Go on, you know you want one.

They are trees of life and trees of knowledge. They are wish-fulfillers … rainforest royalty … more precious than gold. They are the fig trees, and they have affected humanity in profound but little-known ways. This book tells their amazing story.

Fig trees fed our pre-human ancestors, influenced diverse cultures and played key roles in the dawn of civilization. They feature in every major religion, starring alongside Adam and Eve, Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. This is no coincidence – fig trees are special. They evolved when giant dinosaurs still roamed and have been shaping our world ever since.

These trees intrigued Aristotle and amazed Alexander the Great. They were instrumental in Kenya’s struggle for independence and helped restore life after Krakatoa’s catastrophic eruption. Egypt’s Pharaohs hoped to meet fig trees in the afterlife and Queen Elizabeth II was asleep in one when she ascended the throne.

And all because 80 million years ago these trees cut a curious deal with some tiny wasps. Thanks to this deal, figs sustain more species of birds and mammals than any other trees, making them vital to rainforests. In a time of falling trees and rising temperatures, their story offers hope.

Ultimately, it’s a story about humanity’s relationship with nature. The story of the fig trees stretches back tens of millions of years, but it is as relevant to our future as it is to our past.

Book-covers-pile

How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future

After many years of research, writing, illustrating, re-writing and more re-writing, my book Ladders to Heaven is about to be printed.

The publication date is 8 September 2016, but anyone pre-ordering a copy through Unbound will get their book before it reaches the shops, as soon as it is ready. And if you order by midnight (UK time) on 2 June 2016 you will be listed as a patron in the back of the book.

Here’s a preview of the book’s cover and summary text, and a montage of its 20 illustrations, which are available as prints via Unbound.

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Chapter-by-chapter preview of my book Ladders to Heaven

Here is an outline of each chapter of Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future, the book I am crowdfunding through publisher Unbound. There’s a 10th chapter that I haven’t mentioned yet. That’s a secret for now.

If you like what you see, please considering reserving a copy. Everyone who does will have their name printed in each edition of the book. To watch a short video about the book, read a synopsis and summary, or to order a copy, visit the Unbound site.

Chapter 1: Trees of Life, Trees of Knowledge

I will show you how fig trees inspired the co-founder of the theory of evolution, how they feature in the creation myths of diverse religions and cultures, and how these two facts are connected.

Chapter 2: A Long Seduction

I will show you how people have revered one special fig species in Asia for more than 5000-years. You will meet the Buddha and a bloodthirsty dictator. I will tell the tale of a fig tree that has travelled thousands of kilometres and been made a king, has helped spread a philosophy of peace and had its flesh torn by hot bullets during a brutal massacre.

Chapter 3: Banyans and Botanical Monkeys

You hear how fig trees influence the founders of biology, more than 2300 years ago in Greece, and how Alexander the Great encountered a fig tree in India that was big enough to shelter thousands of his soldiers. I will tell the story of a 20th century fig biologist whose extraordinary drive to botanise had him labelled a traitor and a spy.

Chapter 4: Sex and Violence in the Hanging Gardens

You will find out how an 80-million year-old partnership between fig trees and tiny wasps will influence the fates of forests and wildlife across the tropics. This story is surely one of the most astounding in all of biology. It is one of the most important as well, for without these tiny creatures and their interactions with fig trees, the world as we know it would not exist.

Chapter 5: Struggles for Existence

I’ll show tell you the story of the ancient relationship between birds called rhinoceros hornbills and the giant fig trees whose seeds they disperse. Both partners face extreme challenges in their bid to survive and reproduce. Their solutions have knock-on effects on thousands of other species.

Chapter 6: Goodbye to the Gardeners, Hello to the Heat

I’ll take you to Borneo where I lived in a national park for 18 months studying dozens of wild fig species and the animals that disperse their seeds. I’ll explain how climate change, hunting and deforestation threaten the 80-million year long reign of the fig trees, and what this could mean for us.

Chapter 7: From Dependence to Domination

I’ll show you how fig trees played crucial roles in human evolution and cultural development, as sources of food, medicine and more. The figs were influencing our ancestors long before they descended from the trees. You will meet dinosaurs and ape-men, ancient royals and strange spirits, pharaohs and farmers. I will explain timeless wisdom of letting fig trees stand tall.

Chapter 7: The War of the Trees

I will explain the ecological and cultural reasons fig trees played many curious roles in the struggle for Kenyan independence. You will find out how fig trees connect a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a rum smuggler, Queen Elizabeth II, a prophet and the most wanted man in the British Empire.

Chapter 9: Once Destroyed, Forever Lost?

I’ll show you how fig trees could give yet provide us with their greatest gifts if we learn the lessons their biology can teach. I will tell you about a terrifying Time of Darkness, take you to volcanoes where fig trees have helped rebuild forests and share the story of a scientist with a vision of robots in rainforests.

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A fig tree swallowing a warehouse

Roots ooze through windows and cracks between bricks. They pour down walls and pool on the floor. They entwine with remnant beams from the roof their weight has crushed. They seal once-busy doorways and claim the rooms they hide. It’s a strangler fig in action, engulfing an entire building in Taiwan.

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I’m always on the lookout for interesting fig trees so was pleased to learn about this specimen known as the ‘Anping treehouse’ in an article by Jenny Zhang.

Strangler figs usually grow on other trees but some are as adept at colonising buildings. This one began its assault on an abandoned warehouse in the 1950s. For decades local people avoided it, heeding folk tales that say spirits lurk among strangler fig roots. The fig was free to thrive.

Those folk beliefs themselves have deep roots. Across large parts of Africa and Asia taboos against harming wild fig trees were once common. In some places they remain. My forthcoming book Ladders to Heaven explains the ecological basis for these ancient traditions and describes how fig trees and their powerful roots could bring us future benefits.

Photo credits: Flickr: riNux / Creative Commons; Blowing Puffer Fish / Creative Commons; Alexander Synaptic / Creative Commons

L2Hpromo

Going dotty about fig trees: Ancient and imagined images of the world’s most fascinating trees

I want to share some photos of the illustrations I am creating for my book Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future…. (watch a short video about the book, read an extract or order a copy, here) .

The pictures below are not finished but they will give you an idea of what the final versions will look like. Below and left you can see the view you can get by looking up inside a strangler fig that has killed its host tree.

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There will be 20 illustrations in the book. Some I have redrawn from very old images , such as one of Adam and Eve beneath a fig tree, which a Spanish monk created in the year 994 (see above, right).

An even older image is that found on a stone seal in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan. The image was created about 4,000 years ago. It shows a human figure, possibly a deity, inside another kind of fig tree. In front of the tree is a kneeling man and alongside him is a human head on a stool (see below). The book will explain what’s going on in this scene.

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The illustrations will include pictures of famous fig trees, such as the one Queen Elizabeth II was sleeping in when she ascended to the throne, and wildlife such as this rhinoceros hornbill, one of the most important fig-eating animals.

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Each of the images involves lots of dots. In the set of photos below you can see how I move from a pencil sketch to ink. .

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I will share more images as I complete them. Meanwhile, here is some more information about the book.

Ladders to Heaven will appear early in 2016. My publisher, Unbound, uses a crowdfunding model: Everyone who orders a copy in advance will be named in the book as a patron.  As well as e-book and hardback editions, supporters can choose packages that include prints or postcards of the illustrations. To watch a short video about the book, read a synopsis and summary, or to order a copy, visit: http://unbound.co.uk/books/ladders-to-heaven

Snakes and ladders and tantalising figs

… an extract from the prologue of my book Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future.

Snake-Figs-Borneo

The figs were big orange beacons that lured me from afar. The snake was lime green and venomous and just centimetres from my face.

I met them both near the top of a tree, about 35 metres above the ground in a Bornean rainforest. While the snake was safely coiled on a sturdy branch, I had only some sweat soaked fingers to save me from a fall. My heart raced. The snake’s unblinking eyes looked as patient as time.

The year was 1998 and I was falling headlong into a fascinating story. Its stars are the fig trees — the 750 or so Ficus species. Over millions of years they have shaped our world, driven our evolution, nourished our bodies and fed our imaginations.

The best could be yet to come. These plants could help us restore ravaged rainforests, limit climate change and stem the loss of wild species. They could build vital bridges between religions, and between scientific and faith-based worldviews.

Their story reminds us of what we all share and warns us of what we could lose. But these plants are under threat. We risk running out of time to learn the many lessons they have to teach us.

*

In Greek mythology a branch laden with sweet figs was among the temptations that teased the demigod Tantalus during his punishment in the Underworld. Each time Tantalus reached for the figs, a wind wrenched the tree’s bough beyond his reach. This tale gifted English the verb to tantalise.

Those dull orange figs in Borneo, with their guardian snake, seemed set to elude me too. I hungered to have them, though I had no desire to eat their flesh.

The figs adorned the stubby branches of a Ficus aurantiaca. This species relies heavily on primates to eat its figs and disperse the tiny seeds within. But in this particular forest Ficus aurantiaca was a plant with problems.

First, there were few primates left in the area. The national park I was in was an island of ancient forest at whose edges lapped a sea of oil-palm plantations, farms and logging concessions.

These man-made habitats posed dangers to primates and other wildlife. Like the national park itself, they were often visited by shotgun-toting hunters for whom a monkey or a gibbon would be a prize kill.

But even if primates had been abundant, something else was wrong. Like all fig species Ficus aurantiaca depends on a specific kind of tiny wasp to pollinate its flowers. That year, however, an intense drought killed off these insects.

Across the national park the same problem had stricken many other species of figs too. No pollinators meant no seeds to create a new generation of Ficus plants. It meant no ripe figs to feed hungry animals. And that would have knock-on effects for the other plants whose seeds these creatures dispersed, and for the other animals that depended on those plants.

The local extinction of tiny wasps had impacts that rippled across the forest ecosystem. That’s why the Ficus aurantiaca figs I spotted that day had made me incautious. I had never seen so many of that species before and I needed to know what was going on inside them. All that lay between my curiosity and the answers I sought was that poisonous snake and the risk of a long fall.

I was hanging on to a ladder that somebody had attached vertically to the trunk of the tree. The ladder was the last of seven that stood toes-to-shoulders, each one flush to the tree.

As I tried to maintain my grip on the metal rungs, an intense wave of vertigo paralysed me. For a moment I could no longer sense my own body. It was as if my mind was all that existed of me, and it scrambled to process the sudden danger. I held my breath. It was a long way down but I needed those figs and that meant I had to let go of the ladder with one hand to reach past the snake.

*

Tantalus never got his figs but I got mine. As I plucked each one and shoved it into my pocket, sticky latex —whiter than milk — oozed from the plant’s wounds. This gummy sap is common to all fig species. It deters insects from feeding on them and speeds recovery from wounds.

Throughout history people have discovered ways to make the latex work for them. They have smeared it on branches to catch birds, curdled milk with it to make cheese, processed it to make rubber and used it as an aphrodisiac.

I was glad of the latex that day. It covered my hands and strengthened my grip as I lowered myself down the chain of ladders and entered the murky forest again. The snake had not moved a single scale.

It may seem strange to spend time and take risks in search of rare figs but by the time I met that snake in 1998 I had come to understand three things: that fig trees can play critical roles in rainforests and other ecosystems; that they have influenced the development of diverse human cultures; and that today we are both destroying the former functions and forgetting the latter.

Back then the science was fascinating enough. But I was learning too about a chain of reverence towards fig trees that coils back in time for many thousands of years and encircles almost the entire globe.

Fig trees appear in mythologies in the Amazon and in Africa, across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and from the foothills of the Himalayas to the islands of the South Pacific. They feature in some way in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism and Sikhism. They star in the stories of Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed and a host of other gods and prophets.

Fig trees were inspiring, sustaining and even protecting our ancestors long before they invented writing or domesticated the dog. They were pivotal in the birth of agriculture nearly 12,000 years ago and are among the most nutritious of foods we eat today.

Our shared story stretches back beyond the origin of human settlements, back to before the birth of our species, and back to before the day our ape-like ancestors descended from the trees and walked upright for the first time around seven million years ago. In fact, fig species had begun to interact with our ancestors long before they climbed the trees in the first place – back when the closest things to modern humans were the small shrew-like creatures that scampered in the shadows of the dinosaurs.

Ladders to Heaven explains why. It is a story of life and death and of a deal undone. Its cast includes kings and queens, gods and prophets, flying foxes and botanical monkeys. It features scientific wonders and religious miracles, all born from biology that seems almost impossible in its elegance.

Most of all it is a story about the connections between humanity and nature, and what the loss of those links can mean. The story stretches back tens of millions of years to the age of the dinosaurs but is as relevant to our future as to our past. As our planet’s climate changes and reminds us that nature really does matter, the story has important lessons for us all.

More about the book: Unbound will publish Ladders to Heaven early in 2016. My publisher uses a crowdfunding model: Everyone who orders a copy in advance will be named in the book as a patron. To watch a short video about the book or to order a copy, visit: http://unbound.co.uk/books/ladders-to-heaven

Photo credits: Bornean Keeled Green Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus) juvenile (Bernard Dupont/Creative Commons). Ficus aurantiaca (Ahmad Fuad Morad / Creative Commons)