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Rainforests of the World 

June 17, 2010

It’s all about Epiphytes

epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

Epiphytes are amazing. They are prime examples of how adaptation leads to survival in an environment where plants are constantly competing for resources. Plants may not appear to be as active as other organisms, but there is a whole lot going on in their world!

Plants that attach themselves to a host plant (or other object) without parasitizing them are called epiphytes, or, “air plants.” Many orchids, ferns and bromeliads are epiphytes, and there are lots of them in our Rainforest Dome. Although there are countless reasons as to why epiphytes are amazing adaptors, here are my top three:

1. Awesome Design to take Advantage of Fewer Resources
Everything from an epiphyte’s roots to its flowers and fruits are specially designed to help it survive where resources such as water, light and nutrients are scarce. Rainforest canopies are dense with foliage, making it difficult for any new plants to obtain sunlight for photosynthesis. Because epiphytes have adapted to live on the branches of tall trees and vines, they are able to access sunlight that plants on lower levels of a rainforest canopy cannot.

Being able to live on other plants also requires specialized roots. Epiphytes have a strong, thick root system that not only allows them to grow on almost anything, but is extremely efficient in absorbing morning mist, rain and moisture from humidity. Unlike most plants that live in soil, epiphytes’ roots obtain nutrients from leaf litter and other debris that accumulate on the branches and vines they live on.

epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

The stems and leaves of epiphytes are also modified. Bromeliads have stiff, upturned leaves that allow pools of water to be stored. Some species of bromeliads can hold up to 2 gallons of water! Other types of modified leaves include our Staghorn fern (Platycerium madagascariense). It has very thick and waxy leaves to retain moisture. Many epiphytes’ stems share similar characteristics.

epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

2. Clever and Successful Reproduction Strategies
With so many awesome adaptations, the best part about survival for an organism like an epiphyte is to reproduce! There are so many other plants in a rainforest that getting a pollinator to take notice is a feat in itself. The solution? Get a pollinator’s attention! Take a look at some of the amazing blooms the epiphytes in our Rainforest Dome have produced over the past year:

Masdevallia erinaceae:
epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

Epidendrum piliferum:
epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

Bulbophyllum blumei:
epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

These pictures were taken just days ago of two Brassia species:
epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

So… did those flowers get YOUR attention? Epiphytes put large amounts of energy into producing breath-taking blooms, fruit, perfume and nectar to lure pollinators. When pollination is successful, many epiphytes produce mass numbers of seeds that can be transported by wind.

3. Relationships with surrounding organisms
The characteristics of epiphytes allow them to play many roles in their environment. Epiphyte pollinators such as insects, birds and other small animals use epiphytes as a food source. In our Rainforest Dome, our Bananaquits (Coereba flaveola) are constantly checking flowering plants for nectar:

epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

Dead flowers, twigs and leaf litter that accumulate on the roots of epiphytes are a source of nesting material for many of our birds as well. Here is a picture of one of our Saffron Finches (Sicalis flaveola) collecting materials from an epiphyte:

epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

In fact, past Rainforest Blog posts have been about this very topic! In Dec. ’09, our second Rainforest Blog post featured our Euphonia (Euphonia violacea) pair nesting in an epiphyte. In March ’10, our blog post described the role of bromeliads in the reproduction of strawberry dart frogs (Oophaga pumilio). Epiphyte adaptation strategies have led to surrounding organisms adapting to live amongst them, bringing coexistence and interdependence around full circle.

epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

epiphytes

Photo by: Rachael Tom

Whether you’re admiring an orchid in a store window or all of the epiphytes in our Rainforest Dome, we hope you love and appreciate them as much as we do! They are truly amazing adaptors!


Filed under: Plants — rainforest @ 2:29 pm

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