Global Fig trees

Fig trees - some 1000 species of the genus Ficus - inhabit tropical and subtropical woodlands and forests around the world. No other tree group has such a distribution (5 continents) and such fruit abundance. Ranging in appearance from little bushes to giant trees, they all share a complex, and highly specialized mode of pollination: each species of fig depends on its own specific species of tiny fig wasp as pollinator. Each species also has a number of parasitic wasps, which use the fig as food without offering pollination in exchange, and there are even parasitoid wasps whose larvae develop inside the larvae of the pollinators.

Tropical figs are unusual in that individuals of the same species flower and fruit at different times, so even during the leanest times there is usually a fig tree fruiting somewhere in the forest. A fruiting fig can pull in hundreds of monkeys, birds, and bats from the surrounding forest, keeping the animals fed even through the hungry months of the late wet season. It’s difficult to overemphasize the role that figs play in tropical forests: without them the lean times would be even leaner.

Each species of fig draws in the fruit-eating mammals and birds of their respective habitats. A fig in the new world tropics will attract a wide selection of monkeys, opossums, squirrels, toucans and parakeets. Meanwhile figs on Borneo might be visited by orangutans, leaf monkeys, hornbills and fruit pigeons during the day and flying foxes and civets at night. In each location will have also their own unique set of visitors.

This story offers the potential to make tangible the concept of biodiversity, and the complexity that a single species can have with its environment. Biodiversity takes a different shape in different places. By using fig trees as a “sample” unit, we can demonstrate to our readers the how’s and why’s and many ecosystem niches that are filled in unique and synchronistic ways, the value of such key stone species, and the magnitude of the loss of such species.

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