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Back in the day, my grandfather was in Vietnam.. Although he lived in Saigon, he worked closely with the Hmong, the people of the forested mountains which run up the country like a green spine. Sometimes he would rhapsodize about the otherworldly beauty of these tropical cloud forests where he saw sights that seemed to come from times long gone. Beyond the bronze age settlements and floating villages of the Hmong Grandpa said he saw jewel-like orchids and mysterious plants there which were wholly unknown. He also said he witnessed amazing birds, insects, and reptiles and heard rumors of strange animals that seemed to belong in myths (maybe like the saola, which is real (barely)…or maybe like the baku, which is not).

All of which brings us to contemporary news! Back in 2019, a group of American and Vietnamese biologists were studying Vietnam’s northern Ha Giang province (which borders south China) when they found a bizarre snake. The snake did not have bright-light photoreceptors in its eyes and it had strange scales like smooth river pebbles arranged in odd patterns The snake was fossorial–a burrower like the amphibian caecilians. Most strangely of all it had iridescent scales but the colorful opal iridescence was atop dark scales of indigo, lavender, brown, and gray. The snake was unknown to science and it has just been announced as an entirely new species–Achalinus zugorum. It is a member of the genus of snakes called Achalinus, the odd scaled snakes, a poorly understood genus which previously only had 13 known species.

Snakes of the Achalinus genus do not have overlapping scales, instead their scales spread out (perhaps to facilitate a life spent hunting beneath the leaf litter and the forest duff). They seem to be a basal lineage which branched from the evolutionary tree of snakes before the ancestors of other snakes did. Not only their appearance. but also their behavior is very different from that of other snakes. Unfortunately, because of their burrowing lifestyle, the odd-scaled snakes hold tight to their mysteries. A Vietnamese herpetologist who was describing the new species said that during decades of collecting snakes in Vietnam’s snake-filled jungles he has only captured half a dozen Achalinus snakes.

The discovery highlights how much we do not know about creatures and ecosystems which are disappearing quickly. Fortunately, researchers at the Smithsonian sequenced the DNA for Achalinus zugorum before returning the single specimen to Vietnam. We may know nothing about this carnival glass serpent from the underworld, but we also know everything about it (if we ever learn to truly read what we have written down). It excites me to imagine these snakes and other unknown species pursuing their secret and unintelligible lives among the orchid roots, and myceli of unknown fungi in these forests. It makes me anxious though, too. How long will this cryptic & beautiful hidden world even exist before it is all swept away?

The Flower of Chiranthodendron pentadactylon

The Devil’s Hand Tree (Chiranthodendron pentadactylon) is an unusual evergreen tree from the cloud forests of Central America (Guatemala and Mexico).  The tree grows up to 12 meters (40 feet) tall and has distinctive oversized leaves with ruddy metallic veins and fuzzy undersides.

Chiranthodendron is Greek for “hand-flowering tree” and pentadactylon means five fingered (which makes this tree sound like a grabby pterosaur or an early fish).  There is good reason for the name though—as the common name indicates the distinctive flowers of this tropical tree look like demon hands.  The five blood red stamens are shaped like clawed fingers–each of which has a double row of saffron yellow pollen running along it. As the flowers fade they curl into claws.

The pollinators of the tree are nectar sipping bats and perching birds (particularly orioles) which drink sweet nectar from the bowl-like petals beneath the stamen “claw.”  Once the flower is fertilized it forms an extremely hard seed.

The tree was apparently revered by the Aztecs who knew it from a single grand specimen which grew alone in Toluca (in the Valley of Mexico).  The lone tree was famous and venerated.  Healers used parts of it to make medicine, but, despite—or because of—their respect, the Aztecs annually harvested every single flower off the tree to prevent it from germinating and producing others of its kind. However there were rumors about offshoots hidden in royal gardens (and in the private gardens of the tree’s tenders).

Extracts from the Devil’s Hand tree are reputed to have antimicrobial properties and to serve as heart stimulants—but I lack conclusive scientific evidence for these assertions.  If you want to stimulate your heart you had probably find some other means of doing so.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2021
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