Weekend Snapshot: Feb. 7-8

Hugging the top of an incredibly tall ficus tree with my entire body out of a beautiful combination of extreme happiness and terror is the newest addition to the list of things I never thought I would do. I am completely enamoured with rock climbing, but I have never been one to climb trees. People typically seem to get into that around age 6 or 7, and when I was that old, I was far too physically cautious to venture past the first couple branches.

Every time we go to Santa Elena, a town about a 30 minute drive from campus with a handful of restaurants and markets, the view out to the ocean miles and miles away is captivating, and I can’t help but stick my head out the window to feel the wind and to get as close to it as I can. On our second-to-last trip to town, my friend Alejandro and I met a couple of friendly, dreadlocked hippies selling beautiful stone, gem, and thread bracelets. One man, speaking in rapid Spanish, told Ale about a huge ficus tree which we could climb and see the entire area and out to the ocean from the top branches. Immediately after Ale told me what he had said, I became fixated on the idea.

On our last trip to town, after an essential coffee stop, we headed out to the tree with our South African friend Emma. We asked for directions two or three times, headed up huge hills and turned down a non-descript dirt pathway into what looked a little more like the forest than the town. When we finally came upon the tree, we realized that it didn’t have climbable branches — rather, it was adorned with a gigantic strangler fig that had grown and morphed into a natural ladder. We only needed to climb inside the strangler fig in order to access the path up to the top of the tree, and with careful movements, we placed our feet in the natural footholds and wrapped our arms around the branches, lifting ourselves up further and further towards the top of the tree. Looking through the holes of the strangler fig quickly became more and more exciting, and, simultaneously, anxiety-inducing. When we reached the top, the strangler fig was so narrow that we were crawling on our knees. Sticking my head out of the strangler fig, I was greeted by the uppermost branches of the tree, and after climbing out, the most spectacular view.

I breathed shakily, taking in the sheer insanity of being alive in this strange place, and feeling wonderfully insignificant.

Leaning against the tree, I was the happiest I’ve been in the longest time, feeling one with nature, despite the cliché. So often we forget that we are not separate from the natural world as humans, and climbing to the top of the tree reminded me, as so much has recently, to be grateful for our place on this beautiful Earth.

Post contributed by Madeline Schwartz, THINK Global School student

Pop Quiz #2!

Test your knowledge on the flora and fauna growing along UGACR campus trails and throughout the Monteverde Cloud Forest here in Costa Rica. You never know when a trivia night will call for tropical ecology facts…

True or False?

These are two different species of trees:

True. That was a tough one, but after a closer look, you could be one step closer to becoming a resident naturalist on the UGA Costa Rica campus!

One of the most telling differences is the growth pattern of each tree. Notice, the first tree, a strangler fig, resembles a vine and weaves around a host tree. The ebony tree on the other hand, has no host and, although its trunk resembles thick vines, it’s merely the trunk growing predominantly upward.

Many plants struggle to establish themselves as seedlings in the dark, nutrient-poor soil of the cloud forest floor. In order to survive, hemiepiphytes start from the top and work their way down. Strangler figs, of which there are a number of different species within the genus Ficus, are one such canopy-born plant. Birds often disperse the seeds high in the canopy, atop branches reaching for sunlight.

While the fig germinates in the cloud forest’s natural awning, its roots begin a journey of descent. For approximately 20 years, the host tree serves as a GPS system for the fig, guiding the roots downward. Slowly, the roots twist and tangle their way around the trunk of its host, forming a lacework of crisscrossing vines. Once rooted in the thin layer of soil, the fig inhibits the host tree from extracting vital nutrients. Strangled and starving, the host tree rots and what remains is the hollow corkscrew trunk of a fig tree.

HollowFig

The ebony tree, Diospyros sp., grows wide and high, from the ground up. Although its outermost trunk may look like thick individual pipes, the tree is entirely connected. During its growth the trunk forms deep crevasses, mini-caves where snakes, birds, spiders and bats are know to nest. Ebony wood is black and sturdy, once a popular material for creating black piano keys. If it were to be cut down, and ebony tree could remain as is for nearly 50 years without decaying, an indication of its durability.

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern