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Being strangled may save this tree’s life

Meet the strangler fig: a parasitic nightmare that lives on other tropical trees, stealing their soil nutrients, water, and even sunlight through a canopy of dense leaves and tendrillike roots that twist around the host plant (above). Eventually, the fig’s roots can completely encase the host, strangling its trunk and cutting off nutrient flow until it dies and rots away—leaving just the hollow fig behind. But this killer could actually be saving its victims during some tropical storms, according to a new study. Scientists examined the prevalence of strangler figs in Lamington National Park in Australia after a cyclone that felled hundreds of trees. Comparing felled trees with their nearest still-standing neighbors, they found those that survived the storm were more than four times more likely to have large attached strangler figs, they report this month in Symbiosis. What’s more, that trend held regardless of tree size. Strangler figs could be protecting their hosts from being uprooted in a number of ways, the researchers say. Their aerial roots—which can attach to both surrounding trees and the ground—may help stabilize the host and limit its potential movement, acting much like guylines on a tent. The leaves of the figs may also close up gaps in the forest canopy, helping increase shielding from the wind. Finally, the stranglers’ scaffoldlike root networks may help support and strengthen the tree trunks they encircle in their deadly embrace.