The magic of tropical forests and the fig trees that live in them

FigOnTowerCambodia

Michael Metivier at my US publisher Chelsea Green Publishing (CGP) recently interviewed me about my book — published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. The book is about how fig trees have influenced humanity and the world about us in profound ways thanks to some extraordinary biology.

Here’s how the conversation went:

CGP: You’ve written a fascinating book about figs, but your interest in biology started with big animals. How did you end up finding figs and fig-wasps?

MS: What interested me most when I began studying biology at university was how animals and plants behave and interact and influence each other’s fates. But I was definitely more interested in animals than plants, and in big animals more than small ones.

By accident, I ended up studying the whole gamut in the mixed-up biology of fig trees, their pollinator wasps, and seed-dispersing birds and mammals. For my master’s degree’s field project, I was meant to go to Indonesia to study the wild bird trade, but it turned out that the project there needed a social scientist, not a biologist.

My course supervisor felt bad and reached out to three of his fellow fig biologists to see if any could host a project student for six weeks. It was Rhett Harrison, in a rainforest national park in Borneo, who replied first with a yes. The fig trees I studied there soon seduced me. My master’s project turned into a doctoral thesis, and I would spend 18 months in the rainforest over the next three years.

CGP: What do you mean by “mixed-up biology of fig trees.” Can you elaborate?

MS: By mixed-up I meant that the fates of fig trees, fig-wasps, and fig-eating birds and mammal are all bound together. The flowers of each fig tree species can be pollinated only by specific fig-wasp species. The wasps in turn can only breed in their partner’s flowers, which are inside the figs.

Thanks to this 80-million-year-old relationship, more than 1,200 bird and mammal species benefit by feeding on ripe figs. And because of the wasps, ripe figs can be found year round, sustaining a great variety of wildlife when other fruits are scarce. Most of these animals are fig-seed dispersers, providing a service to the fig trees in return for a payment of fig flesh.

The wasp-fig-wildlife marriage is under constant pressure. Some birds and mammals are enemies of the fig trees, destroying the seeds they consume. There are also parasitic insects that feed on the offspring of pollinator wasps inside their figs. Overall though, the marriage is strong. It has many children too—not only the new generations of fig trees, fig-wasps and fig-eating animals, but also those of hundreds of other plant species whose seeds the fig-sustained animals disperse. As a result, fig trees and their associated animals shape the world about us, just as they have been doing for tens of millions of years.

CGP: You grew up off the coast of England, so what began your fascination with tropical ecosystems, and what/when was your first encounter with them?

MS: I grew up on Jersey, a very small island in the English Channel, with no rivers, no mountains, no forests. My interest in tropical forests was fed in part by my dad’s love of nature and being outdoors. Under his influence, I also watched a lot of David Attenborough documentaries as a kid.

Another big childhood influence was Jersey Zoo, now Durrell Wildlife Park, and its symbol—the dodo. The writer Gerald Durrell had set the zoo up to breed rare species and restock their wild populations. At a very young age, the zoo taught me about the diversity of life, the wonders of the tropics, and the reality of extinction.

Later when I was a teenager, I began reading New Scientist and started to understand just how important tropical rainforests are, not just for wildlife but for the climate and our wellbeing. The first time I went to the tropics was in 1994, when I visited Sri Lanka with some friends from university. To walk in a tropical forest for the first time was an amazing experience. I was awestruck.

CGP: You clearly identify the ecology and biology of fig trees, but you’ve become fascinated with the role figs have played in human history. What can we learn from these cultural associations and meanings?

MS: The more I learned about wild fig species, the more I came across curious stories in which these trees star. They feature in myths and religious stories from places as varied as Greece, Kenya, Mexico, Egypt, India, and Australia—and many more. The local Iban people who lived near my research site in Borneo said strangler figs were hosts to spirits and so should never be felled.

I later learned that such taboos against felling fig trees are remarkably common to diverse cultures around the world. The more I dug, the more I realised how deep-rooted fig trees are in the human story. They were sustaining, protecting, and inspiring our ancestors long, long ago, and today, thanks to their unique biology, they can help us to restore damaged rainforests and protect rare and endangered wildlife.

Protecting and planting fig trees will help us to safeguard many thousands of other species of plants and animals and the ecological functions they provide. Healthy biodiverse forests can both provide sustainable livelihoods and lock away carbon, slowing climate change. Those ancient cultural taboos against felling fig trees are still relevant today.

CGP: One of the lasting impressions from your book is the surprising ways in which science and spirituality quite naturally intertwine. On a personal level, is there a memory you have from your travels and studies where you experienced the sublimity of these connections?

MS: The first time I walked in a tropical rainforest, in Sri Lanka in 1994, I felt what I can only describe as awe. I viscerally felt the abundance of life all about me. It was as if I could somehow detect it at some deep level within me. To be in a tropical rainforest is to be immersed in a new atmosphere, a different humidity, a new soundscape, and a visual flood of myriad shades of green.

With so much life vibrating in one place, it is hard not to feel some connection to the rhythm. I have had that same sensation many times in Borneo and in the Amazon and in other forests. Part of its power is how it reveals that all life is connected, and how small we are in the greater scheme of life. The sensation is both grounding and enlivening.

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More information

Ladders To Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future was published in the UK by Unbound.

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees was published in North America by Chelsea Green Publishing.

While the titles are different, the content of these two books is the same.

Read a summary and advance praise from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Michael Pollan, Sy Montgomery, Fred Pearce, Simran Sethi and Thomas Lovejoy and others.

Photo credit: Lawrence Murray (Flickr / Creative Commons) – cropped image of strangler fig on ruined temple (Beng Mealea, Cambodia)

The orangutan, the strangler fig and the photographer — a story of entwined lives

Orangutan climbing the pillar root of a strangler fig (Ficus stupenda)

Tim Laman / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

I’m thrilled for Tim Laman, who has just won the 2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for this stunning shot of an orangutan climbing the pillar root of a strangler fig (Ficus stupenda) to feast on ripe figs.

There is a sweet irony to Laman’s winning photo. It was thanks to an image of an orangutan that Laman ever visited Indonesia, where he first became a fig biologist and later developed the skills that would enable him to take photos of life in the rainforest canopy.

Back in 1986, Laman had been at Harvard University studying for a PhD when he saw a poster advertising a research assistant’s job in Indonesian Borneo. The poster featured an image (below) from The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace, Laman’s future hero.

Laman got the job, put his studies on hold and travelled to Borneo, where he fell in love with the rainforest. His life tilted in a new direction. For the next few years, he studied  strangler figs — important plants whose figs feed orangutans and dozens of other wildlife species.

To understand these fascinating plants he had to climb the giant trees on which the stranglers grow. It was up there in the rainforest canopy that Tim found his true vocation — capturing phenomenal images of rare and endangered wildlife. Congratulations Tim!

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Notes:

I’m doubly grateful to Tim Laman. First, for his meticulous research on strangler figs, which helped me during my own doctoral research on these plants. Second, for the help he provided when I was researching my book about fig trees Ladders to Heaven / Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. Laman is the star of Chapter 7.

To see more of Laman’s photos, visit his Facebook and Instagram pages, or his website.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the  Natural History Museum, London. For more details of the awards, visit the website.

Full caption for Laman’s winning photo:

Entwined lives by Tim Laman – Winner, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016: 
A young male orangutan makes the 30-metre (100-foot) climb up the thickest root of the strangler fig that has entwined itself around a tree emerging high above the canopy. The backdrop is the rich rainforest of the Gunung Palung National Park, in West Kalimantan, one of the few protected orangutan strongholds in Indonesian Borneo. The orangutan has returned to feast on the crop of figs. He has a mental map of the likely fruiting trees in his huge range, and he has already feasted here. Tim knew he would return and, more important, that there was no way to reach the top – no route through the canopy – other than up the tree. But he had to do three days of climbing up and down himself, by rope, to place in position several GoPro cameras that he could trigger remotely to give him a chance of not only a wideangle view of the forest below but also a view of the orangutan’s face from above. This shot was the one he had long visualized, looking down on the orangutan within its forest home. GoPro HERO4 Black; 1/30 sec at f2.8; ISO 231.

 

 

Snakes and ladders and tantalising figs

… an extract from the prologue of my book — published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.

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.

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

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.

Click here to read a summary and advance praise from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Michael Pollan, Sy Montgomery, Fred Pearce, Simran Sethi and Thomas Lovejoy and others.

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