Lord of the Rings fans will be pleased to learn that real-life Ents, or at least a close cousin of theirs, can be found marching through the forests of the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve near Quito, Ecuador. In the deep interior of the Reserve, Walking Palm or Cashapona trees slowly migrate across the wilderness as new roots replace the old. The new growth drags the tree along, a process that sometimes allows the tree to walk a few centimeters in just one day.
Socratea exorrhiza is a palm tree native to tropical biomes in Central and South America. Up to 25 meters tall, the Walking Palm is pollinated by beetles and its seeds and seedlings are a food source for many animals living in this ecosystem. Usually found in wet areas, the Walking Palm stands on stilted roots that strategically regrow. “As the soil erodes, the tree grows new, long roots that find new and more solid ground, sometimes up to 20m,” says paleobotanist Peter Vrsansky of the Slovak Academy of Sciences Bratislava. “Then, slowly, as the roots settle in the new soil and the tree bends patiently toward the new roots, the old roots slowly lift into the air. The whole process for the tree to relocate to a new place with better sunlight and more solid ground can take a couple of years.”
The roots also regrow to cope with a changing environment. For example, if another tree fell on a young Walking Palm, that palm would then regrow its roots to re-position its trunk away from the debris. This ability may serve the Walking Palm as tropical forests are being cleared in Ecuador and elsewhere. As other less resilient trees are felled, the Walking Palm may step into new ecological niches.