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)

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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

homeguard2

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.

Ashoka-daughter-Sanghamitta-bringing-bodhi-tree-to-Sri-Lanka-from-India

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)

The stranglers that save lives when cyclones strike

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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.

References:

Handmer, J. & Iveson, H. 2017. Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu: learning from the low death toll. Australian Journal of Management 32 https://ajem.infoservices.com.au/items/AJEM-32-02-22

Richard, L.S. & Halkin, S.L. 2017. Strangler figs may support their host trees during severe storms. Symbiosis 72: 153–157. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13199-017-0484-5

Forsyth, L. & Olul, R. 2017. Unicef NZ: Climate change and preparing for the coming storm. stuff.co.nz (28 June 2017). https://www.stuff.co.nz/world/south-pacific/94193406/unicef-nz-climate-change-and-preparing-for-the-coming-storm

Photo credits:

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

 

Where falling fig trees portend political change

Mugumo

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)

Fresh evidence of the power of fig trees to sustain wildlife and restore lost forests

AtlanticForestFig-Eaters

“Who eats figs? Everybody,” wrote tropical biological Daniel Janzen in 1979. He meant that in tropical rainforests most, if not all, fruit-eating animals will consume figs — the false-fruit of the 750+ Ficus species — at some point in their lives. When I tried to quantify this two decades later, I found records of more than 1270 bird and mammal species eating figs. No other kinds of fruit sustain so much wildlife.

One reason for this is that, unlike most fruit, figs can be found year round. Ficus species therefore sustain birds and mammals through times of general fruit scarcity. As these animals disperse the seeds of thousands of other plant species, the fig trees are crucial to the health of tropical forests.

As my new book shows, research in forests in Africa, Asia and the Americas has shown that without figs, many species of wildlife would suffer, with severe knock-on effects for the plants and animals around them. The flip-side of this is that planting fig trees can boost biodiversity and encourage rainforests to regenerate in areas that have been logged. Efforts to do this are underway in Thailand, Costa Rica and Rwanda.

Now new data published by Carolina Bello and colleagues in the journal Ecology hints that this approach could be valuable in one of the world’s most threatened but least famous forests: the Atlantic Forest of South America.

The Atlantic Forest’s diversity rivals that of the Amazon, but it is in a far more parlous state. The forest once covered an area twice the size of Texas, covering parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Today 85 percent of it has gone. Many of its plants and animals face extinction.

Conservationists are trying to reverse the damage. The Pact for Atlantic Forest Restoration, for instance, aims to restore 15 million hectares of forest there by 2050. The newly-published dataset suggests fig trees could play an important role in such efforts. It gathers thousands of records, made over 55 years, of fruit-eating by animals in the Atlantic Forest. It includes interactions between 331 animal species and 788 plant species.

I had a quick look at the data to see if the forest’s figs were important resources. Indeed they are. The 28 Ficus species represent just 3.5 percent of all plants in the database but, together, they have so far been recorded in the diets of one-third of the fruit-eating animal species (29.7 percent of birds and 43.3 percent of mammals).

That may seem like a lot but it’s a highly conservative estimate. More than half of the fruit-eating animal species in the dataset are either endangered or critically endangered – which makes it hard to study their diets. I would bet that nearly every single one of the Atlantic Forest’s fruit-eating species eats figs.

With figs appearing year-round, this is good news for the other plant species whose seeds these animals disperse. In the new dataset, the fig-eating animals of the Atlantic Forest have been recorded eating the fruit of 691 other plant species. That’s 91 percent of the remaining plant species.

Ficus species appear to be hugely important to the Atlantic Forest. Planting fig trees could therefore accelerate efforts to restore this unique ecosystem as figs attract and sustain the seed dispersers of so many other species.

Reference: Bello, C. et al. 2017. Atlantic frugivory: a plant–frugivore interaction data set for the Atlantic Forest. Ecology. doi:10.1002/ecy.1818

Photo credits: Fig-eating animals of the Atlantic Forest include: Tent-making Bat (CharlesJSharp); Golden-headed Lion Tamarin (Hans Hillewaert); Toco toucan (CharlesJsharp); Northern Muriqui (Peter Schoen); Magpie Tanager (Francesco Veronesi); Blue Dacnis (Andreas Trepte); Violaceous Euphonia (Dario Sanches) – all Wikiepedia/Creative Commons.

 

Amazing photo of Buddha’s head engulfed by strangler fig roots

Buddha-head-strangler-fig-Ficus-roots-Thailand

Few photographs have captured the biological and cultural splendour of fig trees better than this fantastic shot by Adam Baker of strangler fig roots engulfing a stone carving of the Buddha’s head at Wat Mahathat, a 14-century Buddhist temple in Ayutthaya, central Thailand.

Strangler figs grow across the tropics and subtropics, starting out in life high on other trees and sending down aerial roots that merge and split and merge again, dominating all that they encounter. These awesome, eerie plants have become embedded in religion and culture wherever they grow.

It was while meditating beneath a strangler fig that the Buddha attained enlightenment. Throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific and parts of the Americas, these plants are homes to gods and spirits, places of prayer and ritual. But they are also ecological linchpins, sustaining more species of wildlife than any other trees.

My book —published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers tells how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced diverse cultures and can help us restore life to degraded rainforests. Read a summary here.

Credit: I’ve reproduced Adam Baker’s photo with his permission. Check out the original and his other great photography on Flickr.