Parasitic Protection

Strangler figs are remarkable organisms. Germinating in the canopy of another tree, their roots gradually wrap around the host, growing down towards to forest floor. Once in the soil, the interwoven structure of the fig begins to grow and swell. Over time, the strangler fig does what its name suggests, it strangles the host tree. Strangling is bad news for the host, however, new research suggests that strangler figs may actually provide some benefit to larger host trees, at least for part of its life. 

Cyclones are a force to be reckoned with. Their punishing winds can quickly topple even the sturdiest of trees. This is exactly what happened in 2013 when Cyclone Oswald struck Lamington National Park in Australia. Many trees fell victim to this storm but not all. Survival was not random and an interesting pattern started to emerge when researchers began surveying the damage. 

 The hollow center of an ancient strangler fig where its host tree once grew and has long since rotted away.  

The hollow center of an ancient strangler fig where its host tree once grew and has long since rotted away.  

They found that large trees hosting strangler figs survived the storm whereas those without were more likely to be uprooted. It appears that hosting these parasitic figs just might have some benefits after all. There are a handful of mechanisms with which strangler figs could be helping their hosts. First is that figs spanning multiple trees may provide stability for the host and its neighbors. Another could come in the form of additional leaf area. The canopy of both the fig and its host tree may help reduce the impact of the cyclone winds. Additionally, once they make it to the soil, the roots of the strangler fig may act as guy-wires, keeping the host tree from uprooting. Finally, The interwoven roots of the strangler fig may act as scaffolding, providing additional structural integrity to the host tree. 

More work will be needed to see which of these are the most likely mechanisms. The mere fact that this parasitic relationship might not be so one-sided after all is quite interesting. What's more, by keeping large tree species alive through devastating cyclone events, the figs are essentially keeping legacy trees alive that can then reseed the surrounding forest. This could explain why host trees have not evolved any obvious mechanism to avoid strangler fig infestation. 

Further Reading: [1]