How 24 bodies transformed to tell one of nature’s most amazing stories

A strangler fig (left) and a banyan (right)

Something special has happened in India. Last week, 24 black-clad dancers took to a stage before an audience of scientists and, as music played, transformed into insects, birds, mammals and strangler figs. It was the world premiere of ‘How to be a Fig’, a performance based on my book Ladders to Heaven (a.k.a. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers) about how fig trees have shaped our world and can enrich our future.

I am honoured and humbled by the artistry with which the performers brought to life the stories I told. What they have achieved is beyond all of my expectations.

‘How to be a Fig’ is the brainchild of artist and ecologist Abhisheka Krishnagopal and a project of the Artecology Initiative. Abhisheka wanted to show, through the movement of human bodies, the important roles fig trees play in ecosystems thanks to their curious interdependence with tiny wasps. Movement artist Veena Basavarajaiah choreographed the piece and trained the volunteer performers, who included ecologists and engineers, home-makers and lawyers (see profiles of the performers and collaborators).

The performance — narrated by fig biologist Vignesh Venkateswaran —  includes sequences in which the performers portray a strangler fig dominating another tree, the courtship rituals of hornbills that depend on figs to survive, and the way fig trees sustain more wildlife species than any other plants. The way the performers depict the fig-wasp’s journey, reproduction and interaction with its partner tree’s flowers inside a fig is both amazing and true to science.

After last week’s premiere at the Students Conference on Conservation Science at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, the audience gave the performers a standing ovation. I too salute them for their brilliant portrayal of some of nature’s most fascinating and important relationships. I want to say a big ‘thank you’ to everyone involved.

The Artecology team would love to take the show on the road, so if you can help in any way please get in touch.

Abhisheka Krishnagopal performing as a female fig-wasp inside a fig. Photo by Nikhil More

Vinay Kumar and Veena Basavarajaiah portray the courtship rituals of hornbills

Artecology performers as primates coming to feast on figs

The performers of How to be a Fig take a bow

Photo credit: Nikhil More (see more photos here)

More information

My interview with Artecology

How to be a Fig page on the Artecology website

Priyanka Sacheti Mehta’s article: Building bridges between ecology and art: a Ficus love story

Deepthi Nagappa’s pre- and post-performance articles: “How to be a Fig” – A cross-over of conservation science and movement; and How to be a Fig – An engaging and educative presentation of science

My book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers)


The daredevil, the vanishing green sphinx and the plant that found a friend

Brighamia insignis - vulcan palm

High on a sea cliff on the Hawaiian island of Kauai grows a strange and very special plant. Its grey stem is swollen at its base to conserve water, and atop the stem sits a rosette of shiny green leaves. “It sort of looks like a cabbage on a bowling pin,” says Steve Perlman, the botanist who has repeatedly risked his life to save it from extinction.

The plant is Brighamia insignis, and it’s a species with many problems. Like 90 percent of Hawaii’s 1,200 native plant species, it grows nowhere else on Earth. And like hundreds of those species, it is under threat. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List ranks it as critically endangered. Perlman wants to stop it joining the more than 100 Hawaiian plant species that have already gone extinct.

Hawaii is a special place. For millions of years its species evolved in isolation, free from our distorting influence. That all changed around 1500 years ago when the first Polynesian people arrived.

Those original Hawaiians found in Brighamia insignis a minor pharmacy. They ate the plant raw to treat tuberculosis, or mixed its crushed leaves with salt to treat infected cuts. They may even have cultivated this plant for its medicinal properties, as they did with its close relative Brighamia rockii on the island of Molokai. But overall, the arrival of people in Hawaii spelled trouble for Brighamia insignis.

The Polynesians and, more so, the Europeans who arrived in the 1700s, disturbed the local ecology, bringing new species that could out compete the native ones. Feral goats, rats and invasive weeds have all taken their toll. Many species suffer from such a surfeit of enemies, but Brighamia insignis has also lost a friend: the insect it relied upon to pollinate its fragrant flowers.

Each flower is made of five petals that are fused along most of their length so they form a long trumpet shape that opens to form a five-pointed star. The nectar is so far from the opening that only the long proboscis of a butterfly or moth could reach it.

Perlman thinks its natural pollinator is a large moth called the fabulous green sphinx of Kauai. This species is so rare that until 1998 it was thought to be extinct, not having been seen for decades. No pollination, meant no seeds, no future generations to replace the older plants that died each year. “That is why I began doing the pollinating,” says Perlman.

In the 1970s, he spearheaded action to save the species. The plant’s rarity called for extreme measures. To find Brighamia insignis, Perlman first had to take to the sea, battling rough waves in a bright red canoe to reach otherwise inaccessible parts of the rugged coastline. He then had to haul himself up the sheer sea cliffs without a rope.

Video footage of Perlman in action makes for dizzying viewing. As he climbs, his fingers dislodge great chunks of crumbling rock. “It is exciting and thrilling to say the least”, he says. “But that is where the plants are.”

Only once he was on the clifftop, 3,000 feet above the sea, could he secure a rope. Now the botanising could begin. Perlman abseiled back down the cliff, bouncing himself across its face in search of Brighamia insignis plants. He patiently transferred pollen between plants, by hand, to ensure they would produce seeds. He would return months later to harvest the seeds, so they could be grown into adult plants in controlled conditions.

Back in the 1970s when Perlman began working with Brighamia insignis there were a couple of hundred of these plants on Kauai. But two hurricanes wiped many of them out. “As far as we know there is only one plant left in the wild on Kauai,” he says. The species no longer exists on Ni’ihau, the other island where it once grew.

But thanks to Perlman’s bravery and dedication, there are now hundreds of thousands of Brighamia insignis in cultivation, especially in Europe, where they are now popular houseplants. Perlman and colleagues at Hawaii’s Plant Extinction Prevention Program have also planted hundreds of their nursery-grown plants back in the wild.

“We will not lose this species,” says Perlman. In rescuing Brighamia insignis, he learnt cliff-climbing skills that have benefited many other rare plants. But of all the species Perlman has worked with in his 44 years of botanising, Brighamia insignis and its sister species Brighamia rockii are his favourites.

“I love to work with them on the cliffs where they grow,” he says. “I like their shape with the large swollen base and long fragrant flowers. They grow in incredible places in Hawaii and it is a thrill to have helped save them from extinction.”

For Perlman it is personal. He has witnessed the extinction of twenty species, something he has described as being like losing a family member. The main reason he endeavours to save Brighamia insignis, is simply because it exists, and so deserves to endure. This curious plant may have lost its pollinator, but in Perlman at least, it has found a new best friend.

Photo credit: Forest Starr and Kim Starr  (Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

A version of this article first appeared in BBC Earth magazine.

See what it’s like when a strangler fig explodes with life

Rhinoceros hornbills eating ripe figs

‘If you drop, you are dead,’ said Siba anak Aji. I had met him just an hour earlier and already I liked his sense of humour. But he was right about the drop. A fall would provide plenty of opportunities to snap my neck. We were 30 metres high, dangling on a walkway that blazed an aerial trail through the rainforest canopy in Lambir Hills National Park in northern Borneo. The walkway was little more than a series of planks suspended in mid-air by a mesh of plastic coated cables anchored around big trees. With every step I took, the structure jolted, slid and creaked.

I tasted fear that first day. A safety harness tethered me to the walkway but I did not trust it yet. Nor the insects. Little black bees hauled their bodies over my bare arms, thirsty for my sweat. Giant ants scuttled across my hands and boots. My skin crawled. What vanquished my nerves was the view. It was a vision of a distant past. Thick forests had dominated this landscape for a hundred million years. From the walkway we could see the crowns of thousands of trees of hundreds of species. The tallest had burst through the canopy and reached 80 metres into the sky.

Colourful sunbirds and spiderhunters, barbets and flowerpeckers accompanied us as we traversed the 300-metre walkway. Squirrels crashed from tree to tree, their fur a blur
of russet and cream. They sought what I sought – a pulse of life from the forest’s beating heart. Siba found it first, a strangler fig whose branches bore thousands of orange figs.
Within days they would be red and ripe. I would be shackled to the walkway, alone before dawn, waiting to discover what ate them.

So begins Chapter 8 of my book Gods, Wasps and Stranglers (Ladders to Heaven in the UK), which tells how fig trees have shaped our world and our species over millions of years, thanks to some extraordinary biology (see this page for more info and reviews).

In Borneo where I studied them, as in many other places around the world, the strangler figs are the pop-up restaurants of the rainforest. They feed fruit bats, primates and dozens of bird species. The stranglers operate on a boom-and-bust basis. They ripen as many as a million figs in just a few days and trigger a feeding frenzy that falls quiet as quickly as it begins.

To get an idea of what this looks and sounds like, first check out the noises Vincent Chanter recorded when he was beneath a strangler fig in Danum Valley, in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

Then watch this National Geographic clip, also from Borneo, to see just some of the wildlife strangler figs attract.

The film says the tree only fruits once every two years. In fact, strangler figs can produce two or three crops every year. And within each species of strangler fig, the plants fruit out of synchrony. This means ripe figs are available year round, sustaining wildlife when other fruit is scarce.

Thanks to their plenitude and their presence in so many places, figs feed more species than any other fruit — at least 1274 species of birds and mammals. This makes them critical to forests, as the animals they sustain disperse the seeds of thousands of other species.

This special ecology exists because of an 80-million-year-old partnership between fig trees and wasps so small you could inhale one and not notice. And it’s thanks to this relationship that figs have shaped the world about us, influenced human evolution and inspired cultures around the world, and can help us fix some of today’s problems — from deforestation and biodiversity loss to climate change.

Strangler figs may sound malevolent but on balance they are life preservers not destroyers.

*I’ll be speaking about the secret history of fig trees at the Folkestone Book Festival on 21 November 2017. For more details, see my page on the festival website.

Photo credit: Rhinoceros hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros) sharing a ripe fig. Nara Simhan (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Why one fig tree in the middle of nowhere has a 24-hour armed guard


When Parmeshwar Tiwari volunteered to join India’s Home Guard, he didn’t know he would spend five years on a hill in the middle of nowhere defending a fig tree. But he is part of a four-man team doing just that. They protect the tree — in Salamatpur, in the state of Madhya Pradesh — for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Sharing a tent for shelter, they must contend with snakes and scorpions, a lack of amenities, the baking heat and the ever-present grip of boredom. Now they face being splashed by a wave of opprobrium that is bearing down on the state government.

When Anurag Dwary of NDTV reported this month that the state spends 1.2 million rupees (US$18,600) a year to guard and water the tree, critics were quick to point out that sum could pay for all sorts of better things.

Some called the expense stupid; said it made the state government a laughing stock. Others said it was grotesque to spend such a sum on a tree in a state where more than 50 farmers had committed suicide that month because of debts.

But it may yet prove to be a shrewd investment.

The tree is far from ordinary. It is a kind of fig tree, known locally as a peepal tree and to scientists as Ficus religiosa, and it has a long and fascinating history.

The story starts more than 2500 years ago, when the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment whilst meditating beneath a fig tree in northern India.

That tree became known as the bodhi tree, or tree of enlightenment. In 250 BCE, Emperor Ashoka the Great visited it and created a temple there. Such was his respect and love for the Buddha’s tree that his wife become bitterly jealous and tried to kill the plant.

The tree survived, but after Ashoka’s death King Pushyamitra Shunga had it destroyed. The living link with the Buddha was lost.

Except it wasn’t. Because Ashoka had earlier sent a branch of the tree to Sri Lanka as a gift for the King Devanampiya Tissa, who had it planted in his capital Anuradhapura. The picture below shows Ashoka’s daughter bringing the sacred branch to Sri Lanka.


Visit Anuradhapura today and you will see a giant Ficus religiosa that Buddhists say has grown from the branch the king planted, making it the world’s oldest living tree with a recorded history.

In 2012, the then President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had a slender branch with no more than 25 leaves removed from the tree. He brought it to India and planted it on the hillock near Salamatpur.

But just two years later, the Hindustan Times reported that the tree was in trouble. The tree had grown six metres tall and its branches were pushing against the roof of the mesh cage that was meant to protect it. Its leaves were diseased and the tree was parched and wilting for lack of water.

The paper blamed the state government rather than the four guards.  Indeed, it noted that they too were suffering, lacking in water and power supplies and forced to defecate in the open for want of toilet facilities.

“Our duty is to ensure security of the tree and we are doing that despite so many odds,” said one of the guards, Atar Singh.

The newpaper’s report sparked a strong response from the head of the Mahabodhi Society of India, Bhante Vimal Tisse who said the government of India had a moral responsibility to care for the tree and that its negligence had offended Buddhists.

Sri Lanka also got involved. Its Buddhist Religious Affairs Ministry said it would take the matter up with the Indian High Commission.

The outrage and diplomacy soon bore fruit. Today the tree is strong and healthy. Every week a botanist from the state Agriculture Department of Madhya Pradesh visits to check its health. But with fresh questions about the value of protecting the tree, its future is uncertain.

The state’s investment may seem high but it has the potential to transform the local economy if, as planned, pilgrims and tourists begin to flock to visit the tree.

Parmeshwar Tiwari told NDTV’s Anurag Dwary that, five years ago, many people did come “but now only a few turn up”. Maybe more would come if they knew the tree’s story.

But as recently as 2015, according to Milind Ghatwai’s report for The Indian Express, even the guards did not know the significance of what they were protecting.

Read more about the tree of enlightenment and other famous fig trees in my book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers). 

Photo credits: Top (Anurag Dwary/NDTV); bottom (Photo Dharma / Wikimedia Commons)

Can eulogies for lost species help prevent future extinctions?


I sometimes ask people if they can name an extinct species and am never surprised when they cannot list much more than the dodo or the dinosaurs.

Yet, hundreds of species have become extinct since the year 1500. So why do so few people know about them? It may be that we lack rich stories of individual vanished species, with which to connect and relate.

Daniel Hudon’s new book Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals is an attempt to fill this gap for a hundred of the lost species. The pages are filled with tributes to many birds, as well as frogs and snakes and antelopes, monkeys, mice and marsupials.

“I felt these species deserved to be better known,” Hudon told me. “I felt they could be celebrated more. They evolved on the tree of life just like we did and it’s our fault they’re gone so I wanted to acknowledge them somehow.”

Hudon brings into stark focus the final moments of species such as the Laysan honeycreeper — whose last three individuals were obliterated by a sandstorm in 1923. This extinction happened just days after an expedition managed to find and film one of the birds singing. The film, like the bird now, is sadly silent.

Hudon hints at how other species met their end. He tells how the last people to see the Wake Island rail were Japanese soldiers who, during World War II, found themselves on the atoll in the middle of the Pacific. The soldiers were stranded, and starving…

Many of the lost species evolved on islands where no humans had trod – where paradise was not yet lost. Hudon tells how, as people came to settle, to fell trees and collect feathers and hunt for meat, the tide soon turned on these island innocents.

Alone, our species might have left more alive, but we brought rabbits and cats and rats that ravaged the native flora and fauna. Nature got redder in tooth and claw.

Hudon is not alone. In 2016, the New York Times published this eulogy when the last known Rabb’s tree frog died. Outside Magazine published an obituary for the Great Barrier Reef. And John Platt has spent more than a decade documenting dead and dying species.

His Extinction Blog evolved into Scientific American’s Extinction Countdown and has now dispersed to a new home at The Revelator. “I have lost track of how many extinctions I have written about over the years,” Platt wrote in 2014. “There will be more to come.”

Indeed there will.

Some of Hudon’s eulogies are just half a page or, in the case of the Tahitian sandpiper, only four poetic sentences. Others are longer. In them, Hudon stirs black-and-white facts into the rainbow of his imagination. He quotes poets and writers. So we learn what Borges and Blake thought of beasts that are now forever beyond our gaze.

Hudon wrote his eulogies to celebrate lost species in the hope they won’t be forgotten. They are reminders that as one species goes extinct another takes its place, next-in-line on the grim conveyor belt that is accelerating as it rumbles into our future.

In telling these stories Hudon may help to slow that machine.


*Read an extract of Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals by Daniel Hudon in the August 2017 edition of the journal Alterity.

Related posts:

Unhappy endlings: What tales of the last days of extinct and dying species can bring to our own story

Photo credit: Extinct animals cemetry, Beijing — Shizhao/Wikimedia Commons; sunset — PJL/Wikimedia Commons

Film credit: The Swan Song of the Laysan Honeyeater (Donald Ryder Dickey, 1923) / Wikimedia Commons

The stranglers that save lives when cyclones strike


They are demonised as brutal killers but, as two studies published this month show, strangler figs can be lifesavers — of both plants and people.

According to research in the Australian Journal of Management, they contributed to the low death toll of Cyclone Pam, which hit the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu in 2015. When the cyclone destroyed homes there, people survived by taking shelter among the aerial roots of giant strangler figs.

This is more than just an anecdote. People in Vanuatu have been using giant fig trees to escape from cyclones for thousands of years, say Lachlan Forsyth and Rebecca Olul of UNICEF.

“For as long as people have lived on these islands, the trees have been a traditional cyclone shelter,” they write in an article published this week. “During cyclones, entire villages would wriggle down into the tree’s extensive root system, tucking children into the cavities, and waiting out the storm. Even if the tree were uprooted, the entire root structure would come up, leaving those within safely cocooned and protected from flying debris.”

These refuges exist because strangler figs start out in life as seeds that germinate high on other trees. They then send down roots that merge and split and merge again, thickening into a mesh that envelopes the host tree and — in time — erases all trace of it.

While most strangler figs grow on a single host tree, some — known collectively as banyans — are much bigger specimens. Their branches produce aerial roots that thicken into stout pillars that resemble tree trunks and enable the banyan to continue to expand as it ages.

The mass of roots that descends from a banyan’s body and branches creates a matrix of hollows and thick woody walls. In Vanuatu, these chambers have saved people from cyclones for generations.

Strangulation might sound like a brutal fate for the host tree, but before a strangler fig overcomes its host it can also protect it, say biologists Leora Richard and Sylvia Halkin in the new issue of Symbiosis. When they studied the aftermath of Cyclone Oswald, which hit Lamington National Park in Australia in 2013, they found that large trees were less likely to be uprooted if they hosted strangler figs.

By building a scaffold around their host and by anchoring their aerial roots in both the ground and around other trees, the strangler figs appear to protect the trees on which they grow.

So the stranglers can not only protect people directly, as living shelters, but can also help ensure fewer trees fall when a cyclone strikes. Elsewhere fig trees protect people from drought and from extreme rainfall. They sustain more wildlife than any other trees and can accelerate rainforest regeneration.

Collectively, they have much to offer as we come to terms with our fast changing climate.


Handmer, J. & Iveson, H. 2017. Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu: learning from the low death toll. Australian Journal of Management 32

Richard, L.S. & Halkin, S.L. 2017. Strangler figs may support their host trees during severe storms. Symbiosis 72: 153–157.

Forsyth, L. & Olul, R. 2017. Unicef NZ: Climate change and preparing for the coming storm. (28 June 2017).

Photo credits:

Children play among the roots of a giant strangler fig in Vanuatu (UNICEF New Zealand)


Where falling fig trees portend political change


When, after hundreds of years of sustaining life all around it, of providing shade in which prayers were chanted and blood was spilt in sacrifice, of binding communities who claimed it a symbol, when —after all these things — a great mugumo dies and crashes to the ground, its death echoes through both ecology and society.

In the Kikuyu culture of Kenya, the demise of a sacred mugumo fig tree (Ficus natalensis) is more than a local tragedy. It is a portentous event. Now, with two giant mugumos having fallen this year, and another expected to crash down soon, many Kenyans are wondering if some big change is coming.

Mugumo trees are awesome to behold. Some grow upwards from the soil, while others are strangler figs that grow from seeds that fall on other trees. They send down pendant aerial roots that dominate all they touch. In time, these roots coalesce into a solid mass that even an elephant would struggle to topple. To birds, monkeys and fruit bats, a mugumo’s figs offer a lifeline. To people, these titans symbolise strength and power.

Mugumos feature in the Kikuyu people’s origin story. Once consecrated as a shrine, they serve believers as a conduit to god. As such, they must never be cut. As I recount in my book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers), taboos against felling fig trees are not unique to Kenya.

Elsewhere in Africa, as in parts of Central America and much of Asia and the Pacific, many different cultures have developed such bans – often with punishments, both real and imagined, for transgressors.

According to a recent media report, a Kenyan man’s skin turned white after he pruned a sacred fig tree in 1972. Contrast that with the fate of some Kikuyu converts to Christianity who — according to the missionary Constanzo Cagnolo writing in 1933 — were killed for chopping down a mugumo for firewood.

With such strong protections in place, the sacred mugumos have been free to grow into giants. And so, the very notion of one falling has become wrapped up in faith.

Perhaps the most famous of Kenya’s fallen fig trees is one that grew in Thika until 1963, and whose downfall was prophesied more than a century and a half earlier. In the late 1800s, a Kikuyu seer had foreseen the arrival of pale-skinned people toting ‘fire sticks’ — their guns. He saw an iron snake that would eat people and vomit them out – the train. He also predicted that when a huge fig tree in Thika fell, his people would be free.

When representatives of the British Colonial Government heard this story, they reinforced the tree with a metal rail. It did not help. Part of the tree fell in May 1963 and a month later Kenya had gained internal self-rule.

The remainder of the tree fell six months later. Within a month – on 12 December – Kenya became an independent country, with Jomo Kenyatta its first Prime Minister. One of Kenyatta’s first acts as leader of the new nation was to plant a mugumo fig tree where the British Union Flag had fluttered in the wind.

In the years ahead, people would link falling fig trees with the declines of heroes of the struggle for independence. On 2 March 1975, the day after one of these trees fell, a popular politician in Kenyatta’s administration called JM Kariuki was found dead. He had been assassinated, his burnt body dumped on an ant nest. The tumbling-down of another sacred mugumo in 1978 foreshadowed the death of Kenyatta himself, later that year.

Falling fig trees can also signify shifts in power. A giant mugumo in Nyeri County fell shortly before Mwai Kibaki won Kenya’s presidency in 2002, ending nearly 40 years of unbroken rule by Kenyatta’s party KANU.

Another huge mugumo fell just days before the March 2013 general election. As in 1963, this mugumo split in two before it fell. In Kikuyu lore, this signifies ituika — the change of guard from one group to another. Kikuyu elders said it presaged a generational change in Kenya’s leadership. Sure enough, Jomo Kenyatta’s son Uhuru won the presidency – replacing Kibaki and shifting political power from the old to the young.

These mugumo fig trees have played many other curious roles in Kenya, from wartime lookout post to clandestine post office. In the story I tell in my book, they star alongside a queen, a Nobel Prize winner and the most wanted man in the British Empire.

Now, with Kenya’s next general elections taking place on 8 August 2017, the country’s fig trees are again under intense scrutiny. Since the start of the year, dozens of media reports have pondered the significance of an apparent increase in falling fig trees, such as the one that crashed down in Karatina, Nyeri County on 3 May.

Back in March, the body of another sacred mugumo cracked and began tilting toward people’s houses in Kiambu County. A village elder said mugumo trees do this when the society has committed a sin: “God is angry and people need to seek forgiveness,” he said.

Three days earlier, a giant mugumo fell in Kiamigwi village, Nyeri County. Some locals suggested that this symbolised the death of Nyeri’s Governor Nderitu Gachagua, in February. Others said it was because a snake had made its home among the fig’s roots and defiled the holy place.

The Kikuyu elders chanted, sacrificed lambs and sprayed libations of beer to cleanse the shrine and, as one elder put it, to “say goodbye” to the tree. When asked what the mugumo’s demise meant, the elders said there was nothing to fear. On this occasion, it was just a case of old age.


Read more about the cultural and ecological importance of fig trees in my book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers). 

Photo credit: JMK (Wikipedia / Creative Commons)