Kapok Trees and Interconnectedness

The more you travel, the more you find things you never expected, parallels; similarities between places you thought quite dissimilar.

When I visited Equatorial Guinea I was surprised to find a tree there called the kapok tree. It’s a tree that produces a type of ‘cotton’. Thing is, I’d learned about kapok trees, a bit, when studying the American tropics in college. Surely I thought, the kapok tree in Africa is an anomaly. It turned out to be another part of what made a Spanish speaking country in Africa feel just a tiny bit like South America to me.

I was surprised again to learn that there’s a kapok tree in Nepal, again a tree with large flowers and ‘cotton’. It’s a tree with bark covered in sharp spikes when young, undoubtedly to protect vulnerable trees until they grow to sufficient size. Elephants actually eat the bark, humans too use the bark to treat stomach ailments.

The first kapok tree I learned of is a tree sacred to the Maya. Many Amazonian tribes believe deities live within the tree as well. It’s a true jungle tree with beautiful buttresses and fruits full of the ‘cotton’ fiber. There are butterflies that feed exclusively on the genus, as many butterflies specialize on specific plants.

Finding kapok trees in so many different places brings to mind two questions, first are they all the same tree? Secondly, how would the same tree end up in so many distant places, apparently native to all (kapok trees are also found in tropical Australia).

First whether or not you consider the kapok tree the same type across all of these locations depends on what level of taxonomy you consider.

The sacred kapok (also known as ceiba) of the tropical Americas is in the genus Ceiba, the trees native to Western Africa, Northern Australia and the Indian subcontinent (as well as Southeast Asia in general) are all members of the genus Bombax. Despite the different genera between the new world and old world trees, they’re all in the same subfamily: Bombacoideae, of the mallow family. The trees are also similar enough that the common name (confusingly) of kapok is applied to all of them. All trees producing gorgeous flowers and ‘cotton’ in their own corner of the tropics.

The harder thing to wrap your mind around might be how these trees ended up so distantly removed yet so closely related. Of course, the kapok tree is just one of many examples. The genus Alligator has two species, one in America (Alligator mississippiensis) and the other in China (Alligator sinensis). There are also weird things similar between plants in China and the American south, magnolia trees (Magnolia spp.) for instance are found in both.

The short explanation for these similarities in flora and fauna is that the continents have moved around, the climate has changed and now places that were once very similar and close are different and far.

A more interesting thought is considering how small the world becomes when you (as a species, population or even lineage) have even just a million years to move around on it. We all came from the same place and the technology to move quickly across the globe coupled with the lack of moving much under our own power over long distances has warped our view of the world. Our short lifespans limits our understanding. The world is complex and all wrapped up together.

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