Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants. Usually they are smaller plants taking advantage of trees to get closer to the sun or escape ground dwelling herbivores. Some common examples are vines such as lianas, mosses and the famous bromeliads (the pineapple plant although not an epiphyte is the best known example of a bromeliad). A tropical forest wouldn’t be complete without a host of epiphytes. Really everywhere you look in the cloud forest, there are epiphytes, bedecking almost every branching, hanging in mid-air and even epiphytes covering the surface of other epiphytes.
The Neotropical Companion quoting (Perry 1984) claims an estimated 15,500 epiphyte species in the whole of South America. According to a field guide to plant families of Ecuador by Sylvia M. Seger we have at the lodge, there are over 2000 species of bromeliad, 16 genera in Ecuador alone.
Orchids are another familiar example, most but not all of them being epiphytic, with about 3200 species in Ecuador (Sylvia M. Seger).
Ephiphytes can range from mosses, liverworts, lichens to cacti and the afore mentioned bromeliads and orchids. Usually epiphytes cause only small problems for the host tree, other times they become a fatal threat. Strangler figs are one of the most interesting epiphytes. Initially a fig seed is dropped, perhaps by a passing bird or a troop of monkeys. The seed may land in the crotch of a tree and take root, sprouting perhaps in the moist bed of already established living mosses. As the fig grows, it initially resembles a vine, slowly wrapping the host tree. Eventually as the fig wraps its host it becomes like a net, each time it crosses itself fusing together. The slowly forming net reaches the ground and establishes its own root system. Over time the fig expands and chokes off all access to light from its host tree, which dies and is replaced by a newly formed fig tree.
One of the smaller problems that most epiphytes cause their host is quickly absorbing any nutrients from rain or animal (bird, monkey, etc.) droppings higher in the tree before they reach the ground. Some trees deal with having nutrients preemptively stolen by developing aerial roots that stick into the mats of epiphytes and pull nutrients from them. Because of the high amounts of rain in most tropical forests, nutrients are either quickly leached out of soils or pulled up by plants, (little nutrients remain in the soil) nutrients are very important resources for neotropical plants.
There are plenty of epiphytes found at Las Tangaras, the high humidity in the air and high precipitation rates allow a diversity of plants to grow on trees where they only have access to small amounts of soil trapped in roots clinging to branches. These plants in turn become their own microcosms, leaves catching small pools of water become tiny ponds for frogs, breeding grounds for insects. A lizard can live in the canopy of trees it’s whole life, gathering water trapped by epiphytes and eating insects also supplied by epiphytes. Canopies of trees are actually their own microhabitat, still being explored not just in the tropics but through out the forests of the world. Below are some pics of epiphytes I’ve taken at Las Tangaras.