In Ecuador’s richly dense forests, and in many other Latin American jungles, there is a type of tree that can allegedly walk. Tour guides and locals talk of the Socratea exorrhiza as being a walking tree, capable of walking towards sunlight during different seasons. For decades, tour guides have explained that these trees constantly grow new roots, and very slowly move in order to survive. Is it possible that trees can actually walk? Although it seems that tour guides and locals have been talking about this mythical Ecuador’s walking tree for quite some time, is there any actual proof of these trees moving? What distances can the trees walk? And, if the myth is true, what does that tell us about plant life? We look into the myth of the walking tree, and see if any scientists back it up with hard evidence.
The Socrateaa exorrhiza
The Socratea exorrhiza is also known as the Walking Palm, or Cashapona. It has the same foliage as palm trees, and is of the same family. This palm lives in rainforests, in tropical Central and South America. It can grow to about 25 meters, and its stem has a diameter of up to 16 cm. So basically, this tree is pretty huge! What’s especially cool looking with this tree is its roots, which are stilts, and can been seen far above the ground. The palm is pollinated by beetles and many organisms eat its seeds.
Where can we find these walking trees?
There is one place in particular in Ecuador where these walking trees are most spoken of. The Unesco Sumaco Biosphere Reserve is a biodiversity hotspot. About a day’s travel from the capital of Ecuador, Quito, it’s there, about 100 km southeast of Quito, that the walking tree is said to be the most plentiful. Getting to the interior of this forest might be challenging, which includes a lot of travel on foot or by mule on muddy paths, but it’s well worth the trip, as it’s here that you will witness incredible biodiveristy, and, Ecuador’s walking trees.
Walking to survive
So what exactly are these alleged “walking trees” said to be capable of doing? The Socratea exorrhiza can apparently move up to 2 to 3 cm per day, or about 20 meters per year. Why does it move? To survive. Apparently, the tree will move towards sunlight and stable soil, in search of the most nutritious place to be in the forest. Tree’s feed on sunlight and water, as well as the rich nutrients in the soil, to survive. As the seasons change and vegetation varies in the dense jungle, areas where there is an opening in the canopy will be the hot spot for these trees. It is also thought that the tree moves when other trees fall on it, in order to stand itself up again.
How does it walk?
It was in 1980 that John H. Bodlye first suggested that the Socratea exorrhiza’s unusual roots are what allows it to walk. Accroding to Bodley, if a tree knocks over the palm, it will produce new vertical stilt roots to right itself up, while its original roots rot away. Palaeobiologist Peter Vrsansky, who spent time at the Unesco Sumaco Biosphere Reserve researching these walking trees, confirms this theory, claiming that the tree is able to walk due to its long roots.
According to Vrsansky,as the soil erodes, the trees grow new roots that find new, more solid ground. When the new roots settle into the soil, the old roots slowly lift, allowing the tree to bend to its new position. On average, the entire process takes a couple of years.
The Theory Questioned
Although the idea of Ecuador’s walking trees is pretty incredible, there have been numerous scientists that have tried to refute this theory. In 2012, a Live Science article claimed that the story of the walking palm tree just wasn’t true, saying that its only movement comes from the wind, and that the roots stay exactly where they started for the tree’s lifetime. Gerardo Avalos, the director of the Center for Sustainable Development Studies in Costa Rica, agrees. A leading expert on the Socratea exorrhiza species, Avalos conducted in-depth research of the tree and found that it really can’t walk.
So Why the Long Roots?
Perhaps the length of the palm tree’s roots still has something to do with survival. It has been theorized that the length of the roots might actually be a way for the tree to grow taller than other trees in the forest, without having to increase the diameter of the tree’s stem. The roots make the palm tree very stable, thereby allowing it to grow taller faster. The tree doesn’t need to spend as much biomass on the above ground roots, than it would on underground roots, which allows more energy to be used in growing tall above ground.
Where does the myth come from?
It’s all in the roots! The appearance of these bizarre trees make them look like something out of a fantasy novel, which seems to be where the myth comes from. The idea that a tree could actually follow canopy light is pretty far-fetched. But the appearance of the tree’s above ground roots seem to have fuelled tour guide’s imagination. And we have to admit, the idea of a walking tree is pretty darn cool.
Although many scientists have disproved the theory, we’ll leave it up to our readers to decide whether they want to believe in these giant walking palm trees!
+ Bonus Knowledge Nuggets
Did you know that Unesco’s Sumaco Biosphere Reserve, where the walking palm tree can be found, is a real hotspot for plant and animal life? Some areas of the reserve have almost 500 species of birds and 51 species of large mammals. The biosphere reserve also hosts 64 species of reptiles, 61 specirs of amphibians, over 600 butterfly species, and 6,000 plant species. Some trees in the protected area are hundreds of years old.
Show Me the Proof
- Michael J. Balick (Summer 1985). “The indigenous palm flora of “Las Gaviotas” Colombia, including observations on local names and uses”
- Bodley, John; Benson, Foley C. (March 1980). “Stilt-Root Walking by an Iriarteoid Palm in the Peruvian Amazon”. Biotropica (jstor: The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation): 67–71.