A Truly Bizarre Cactus From The Amazon

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When we think of cacti, we tend to think of dry deserts and sandy soils. Few of us would ever jump to the trunk of a tree, nestled in a humid rainforest, and experiencing periodic inundation. Yet, such a habitat is the hallmark of one of the world's most unique species of cactus - Selenicereus witii. In more ways than one, this species is truly aberrant.

Whereas epiphytic cacti aren't novel, the habits of S. witii surely push the limits of what we know about the entire cactus family. Despite having been discovered in 1899, little attention has been paid to this epiphytic cactus. What we do know comes from scant herbarium records and careful observation by a small handful of botanists.

S. witii is endemic to a region of central Amazonia and only grows in Igapó, or seasonally flooded, blackwater forests. It makes its living on the trunks of trees and its entire morphology seems particularly adapted to such a harsh lifestyle. Unlike most cacti, S. witii doesn't seem to bother with water storage. Instead, its stems grow completely appressed to the trunks of trees. Roots emerge from near the spine-bearing areoles and these help to anchor it in place. 

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Because they are often exposed to bright sunlight, the stems produce high amounts of chemical pigments called betalains. These act as sun block, protecting the sensitive photosynthetic machinery from too much radiation. These pigments also give the plant a deep red or purple color that really stands out against the trunks of trees. 

Like all members of this genus, S. witii produces absolutely stunning flowers. However, to see them, your best bet is to venture out at night. Flowers usually begin to open just after sundown and will be closed by morning. And my, what flowers they are! Individual blooms can be upwards of 27 cm long and 12.5 cm wide (10 in by 5 in)! They are also said to produce an intense fragrance. Much of their incredible length is a nectar tube that seems to be catered to a specific group of sphinx moths, whose proboscis is long enough to reach the nectar at the bottom.

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The seeds of S. witii are just as aberrant as the rest of the cactus. They are rather large and shaped like a kidney. Cross sections reveal that most of their size is devoted to hollow air chambers. Indeed, the seeds float like tiny pieces of cork when placed in water. This is likely an adaptation resulting from their preferred habitat.

As mentioned above, S. witii has only been found growing in seasonally flooded forests. What's more, plants only occur on the trunks of large trees right at the high water line. In fact, the highly appressed nature of its stems seems to suggest that this species can withstand periodic submergence in fast flowing water. The seeds must also cope with flooding and it is likely that their buoyant nature aids in seed dispersal during these periods. 

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All in all, this is one weird cactus. Although it isn't alone in its tropical epiphytic habit, it certainly takes the cake for being one of the most derived. Aside from a few publications, little attention has been given to this oddball. It would appear that the seasonal flooding of its preferred habitat has simply chased this cactus up into the trees, the environmental demands of which coaxed out strange but ingenious adaptations from its genome. The good news is that where it does occur, S. witii seems to grow in high numbers.

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1]

In the Wake of Volcanoes

Recruitment windows are any period of time in which seeds germinate and grow into young plants successfully. Needless to say, they are a crucial component of of any plants' life cycle. For some species, these windows are huge, allowing them ample opportunity for successful reproduction. For others, however, these windows are small and specific. Take for instance the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) of the American southwest. These arborescent cacti are famous the world over for their impressive stature. They are true survivors, magnificently adapted to their harsh, dry environment. This does not mean life is a cakewalk though. Survival, especially for seedlings, is measured by the slimmest of margins, with most saguaro dying in their first year. 

Hot, dry days and freezing cold nights are not particularly favorable conditions for young cacti. As such, any favorable change in weather can lead to much higher rates of successful recruitment for a given year. Because of this, saguaro often grow up as cohorts that all took advantage of the same favorable conditions that tipped the odds in their favor. This creates an age pattern that researchers can then use to better understand the population dynamics of these cacti. 

Recently, a researcher from York University noticed a particular pattern in the cacti she was studying. A large amount of the older cacti all dated back to the year 1884. What was so special about 1884, you ask? Certainly the climate must have been favorable. However, the real interesting part of this story is what happen the year before. 1883 saw the eruption of Krakatoa, a volcanic island located between Java and Sumatra. The eruption was massive, spewing tons of volcanic ash into the air. Effectively destroying the island, the eruption was so large that it was heard 1,930 miles away in western Australia. 

The effects of the Krakatoa eruption were felt worldwide. Ash and other gases spewed into the atmosphere caused a chilling of the northern hemisphere. Records of that time show an overall cooling effect of more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit. In the American Southwest, this led to record rainfall from July 1883 to June 1884. The combination of higher than average rainfall and lower than average temperatures made for a banner year for saguaro cacti. Seedlings were able to get past that first year bottleneck. After that first year, saguaro are much more likely to survive the hardships of their habitat. 

The Krakatoa eruption wasn't the only one with its own saguaro cohort. Further investigations have revealed similar patterns following the eruptions of Soufriere, Mt. Pelée, and Santa Maria in 1902, Ksudach in 1907, and Katmai in 1912. What this means is that conservation of species like the saguaro must take into account factors far beyond their immediate environment. Such patterns are likely not unique to saguaro either. The Earth functions as a biosphere and the lines we use to define the world around us can become quite blurry. If anything, this research underlines the importance of a system-based view. Nothing operates in a vacuum. 

Photo Credit: Geir K. Edland

Further Reading: [1] [2]