Tree Tutorial: Cecropia

May 19, 2014

For any travelers journeying to the Peruvian Amazon, there are a couple of tree species that always attract a lot of attention: the enormous kapok trees and the much smaller and extremely more prevalent cecropias.

The cecropia is one of the first trees to grow on disturbed soils. Along the Amazon River, that can be areas of new accumulation of soil from erosion deposits, in areas scorched by fire or any place where the dynamics of water has altered the landscape as it does on a continual basis. Trees like the cecropia are known as “pioneer” species as they are the first species to take hold in any particular low lying riverine habitat.

The cecropia is a distinctive tree and visitors to the region learn to recognize the tree very quickly. Many eco-travelers may have first learned about cecropia trees n Costa Rica or Panama tours as the cecropia has a very wide range in the neotropics. The trunk is typically fairly straight and slender and upon close inspection, has ridges, similar to the ridge on bamboo. The trees foliage is near its canopy and the leaves form an umbrella shape. When standing below a cecropia, it is fairly evident that many insects feed on the leaves as each hole allows light to penetrate, sometimes appearing like leaf skeletons.  

While navigating up or down the Amazon, cruise guests on IE’s deluxe riverboat, La Estrella Amazonica, learn from the guides that searching for brown blobs in the tops of cecropia is the best way to find a sloth. Amazingly, many arboreal termite nests are often called sloths and only with the power of binoculars or the keen eyes of a guide tell if indeed the brown blob is a sloth or something less exciting.

When walking in the lowland forests of the neotropics, caution has to be exercised when standing near a cecropia. Cecropia trunks are the refuge for an ant species that vigorously protects the tree trunk and even keeps herbivores from climbing the trunk from the ground. The ants are a type of Azteca ant and a nonchalant lean on a tree can result in extreme regrets by the leaner! The ants live inside of the tree and their holes are located at the growth ridges of the trunk. Guides will frequently provide a demonstration whereas they use a piece of wood and rap loudly on a cecropia. Within a few seconds, hundreds if not thousands of ants exit their holes and descend on the area where the knocking occurs. One soon realizes that touching, leaning against or any other activity near a cecropia can be met with a very unpleasant experience. Cecropia trees are to be appreciated from a distance!

Naturalist Greg Greer is a favorite among IE travelers, and has gained a reputation for his friendliness and good humor, along with his incomparable knowledge of natural history. Greg's photos and articles have been widely published in books and magazines, including Georgia Outdoor News, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Alabama Outdoor News, Riversedge and Southern Wildlife.