The mystery of an unusual Panamanian plant’s dispersal —

Sleeping in a automotive could also be a necessity for scientists conducting fieldwork. In 2020, a group of younger researchers spent two nights sleeping of their automotive within the mountains of western Panama. The second time it was not intentional: their automotive broke down in El Copé, in Coclé province, and so they needed to look ahead to a tow truck. At the least a lady from the realm took pity on them and provided them fried plantains and low. A number of years and a pandemic later, the research ensuing from these adventures was printed within the journal Ecology and Evolution, revealing clues in regards to the pure historical past of an uncommon plant that solely exists in Panama.

Zamia pseudoparasitica is a singular species that’s solely discovered within the montane cloud forests of western Panama. It’s a cycad, belonging to a really historical order of vegetation that resemble palm timber and produce cones. The genus, Zamia, originated 68.3 million years in the past, when there have been nonetheless dinosaurs roaming the planet. However probably the most uncommon factor about this explicit species is that it’s the solely epiphytic Zamia on this planet: it doesn’t develop on the bottom, however hangs on to the branches and trunks of timber utilizing its roots, typically 7-20 meters above the bottom.

To start to resolve the thriller of the way it persists within the cover, a considerably fortuitous analysis group fashioned. Doctoral pupil on the Max Planck Institute for Animal Habits and visiting scientist on the Smithsonian Tropical Analysis Institute (STRI), Claudio Monteza, and Senacyt-STRI intern and biologist Lilisbeth Rodríguez, bumped into one another someday on the Smithsonian analysis station on Barro Colorado Island, within the Panama Canal. She instructed him in regards to the mission that she was conducting with Z. pseudoparasitica below the supervision of Juan Carlos Villarreal, a biologist from Laval College in Canada, and Kristin Saltonstall, a STRI employees scientist in Panama.

“My objective was to gather samples from completely different species of Zamias within the nation,” Rodríguez mentioned. “These samples would later be analyzed within the laboratory to search out out what species of fungi and micro organism develop inside their leaves.”

Her supervisor, Juan Carlos Villarreal, instructed her that nobody knew how this plant’s seeds had been dispersed: it was nonetheless a thriller. However given her expertise climbing timber as a part of the mission, and conscious of Claudio’s work with digicam traps to check mammal habits, Lilisbeth requested to borrow some traps. She needed to position them excessive up within the timber to search out out what species of animals interacted with the Zamia.

Claudio joined the mission, as did Pedro Luis Castillo, a analysis assistant at STRI, and Edgar Toribio, a tour information from Santa Fe. On the finish of 2019, they positioned the digicam traps on timber in three protected areas the place Z. pseudoparasitica grows: the Palo Seco Protected Forest, the Santa Fe Nationwide Park and the Omar Torrijos Herrera Nationwide Park in El Copé. In March, shortly earlier than a compulsory quarantine as a result of pandemic started, they collected the digicam traps.

What they noticed within the photos may assist clarify how Z. pseudoparasitica disperses within the timber and never on the bottom like different Zamia species. Whereas seven completely different mammals visited the branches the place Z. pseudoparasitica had been rising, some paid no consideration to the plant; others, similar to capuchin monkeys, opossums and kinkajous inspected its cones, some even licked them, however didn’t take the seeds. Solely the northern olingo (Bassaricyon gabbii), a nocturnal tree-dwelling mammal that’s energetic excessive within the cover and feeds totally on fruit, was repeatedly noticed in any respect three websites. When the cones of Z. pseudoparasitica had been nonetheless closed and immature, they had been seen inspecting and biting them. As soon as opened, the cameras detected the olingos gathering as much as 4 seeds at a time.

“It might be that the olingos are taking the seeds to what can be their den or maybe to a seed financial institution,” Monteza defined. “If they’re, which we do not but know for certain, it could assist to clarify why that is the one Zamia species that lives within the forest cover.”

In different phrases, if the seeds are being saved within the cover by olingos, likelihood is they may find yourself in favorable locations for germination up there.

“The montane forests of western Panama are very distinctive, crammed with many species that are not discovered wherever else,” mentioned Kristin Saltonstall, co-supervisor of the mission. “It is thrilling to doc this interplay between such a particular plant and an animal that can also be poorly understood.”

Z. pseudoparasitica is a real epiphyte; that’s to say, it spends its total life within the forest cover,” mentioned Monteza. “The way it persists there’s a thriller that maybe we are going to start to resolve with these preliminary findings. It is thrilling as a result of we will proceed to the subsequent section by gathering extra information; for instance, it happens to us that we will mark the seeds with bioluminescence, look ahead to the olingos to take them away after which seek for the seeds at night time.”