Ecuador’s walking palm trees

  • By Lance Samuel

Socratea Exorrhiza, the Ecuadorian palm tree that walks to better pastures


100 km south east of from Ecuador’s capital, Quito, and an entire day’s journey, lays the heart of the Unesco Sumaco Biosphere Reserve. The journey entails three hours by car to the edge of the forest, and then anywhere from seven to 15 hours by boat, mule and foot, mostly uphill and on a muddy road, to reach the interior. But the effort is worth it, considering you wind up in the middle of a pristine forest that houses a rather unusual find: walking palm trees.
Reminiscent of the Ents from JRR Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings saga (only somewhat slower), these trees actually move across the forest as the growth of new roots gradually relocates them, sometimes two or three centimetres per day.

Peter Vrsansky, a palaeobiologist from the Earth Science Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences Bratislava explains:
“As the soil erodes, the tree grows new, long roots that find new and more solid ground, sometimes up to 20m Then, slowly, as the roots settle in the new soil and the tree bends patiently toward the new roots, the old roots slowly lift into the air. The whole process for the tree to relocate to a new place with better sunlight and more solid ground can take a couple of years.”

A local guide and conservationist, Thierry García spent the last few months living in the forest with Vrsansky while documenting the threats that jeopardize some of its biological wonders. Vrsansky added:
“During our investigations, we discovered some undocumented 30m waterfalls, two new vertebrate species (a lizard and a frog) and we were attacked by a big herd of really big woolly monkeys, they were throwing everything at us, including 6 meter long dry branches and even their faeces and urine.”

The experience has been daunting as they forage from the forest and survive arduous conditions; Vrsansky recalls losing about 10kg of weight within a week. But despite the hardships, Vrsansky said he was exhilarated when he found, in a single spot, more than 150 different cockroach species, more than those currently living in all of Europe. These cockroaches were nothing like the hideous critters lurking around your house; they were all different colours, many either luminescent, shining in the dark, or impossible to discriminate from their backgrounds due to their ability camouflage themselves by mimicking leafs.
Surprisingly, this fairytale forest is currently for sale through the “agricultural reform” scheme, which supports locals cutting down trees in order to gain living rights to a piece of land. “What is happening is that people come, cut down a bunch of trees and gain ownership of their piece of land. Then, after five years, as stipulated by this new law, they are able to sell the land. And they do.” Vrsansky said.
Until now, few locals have technically lived inside the forest. A local shaman claims there is a “bad spirit” inside some parts of the reserve, and the forest is rich in disease-bearing insects and other potential threats.
Still, buying the reserve piece by piece is one of the strategies conservationists are using to save it from deforestation. One hectare goes for less than $500, and so far, García has bought more than 300. “He is not rich,” Vrsansky said of the conservationist, “But now he owns and protects his own harpy eagle, his own jaguar and more than 10,000 arthropod species. And sorry, I forgot, his own waterfall.”
Other potential conservation strategies include selling the land to a university or institute so it becomes a protected research area, or using the forest to promote tourism. “For [visitors], walking by condors and raging volcanoes, combined with the pristine forest, is a window to an existential past,” Vrsansky said. “The forest itself? This is a full display of the life on Earth. You literally feel [like you’re] diving inside an ocean full of life.”
Since 2010, about 200 hectares of forest have been cleared near the Bigal River Biological Reserve, a French-supported research station within the Sumaco reserve. Elsewhere in the reserve, many thousands of hectares have been affected since the building of an access road in 1986. “This [cutting] is a shame, as Ecuador is one of the world countries with the highest partition of protected areas. But the trees can’t walk fast enough to escape the chainsaw and the machetes backed by current legislation.” Vrsansky said.


How the trees walk


Should another tree or foreign object fall on the Socratea Exorrhiza Palm as shown in Figure 2, the land loose it’s fertility or access to sunlight is hindered, the palm sends out new roots in search of more stable and fertile lands. These new roots have been found to stretch out over 20 meters away from the main trunk of the tree. The palm then leans over heavily in the direction of the new roots before the old roots harden, and rise off the ground acting as stilts whilst dragging the entire tree over to it’s new location. It may take several years for a palm to completely relocate to it’s new preferred spot.

Although the trees have been studied in Panama and Costa Rica since the 1961 no concrete evidence could ever be found to prove or disprove theories as to why they walked. The fact that once the palms have relocated the old roots remain elevated acting as stilts keeping the trunk substantially off the ground, led to many theories suggesting that this was to act as a flood survival ability, accept trees in dry lands also demonstrate the same behavior.