Do Walking Palm Trees Really Walk?

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A recently published article on BBC’s website mentions a certain palm tree that has allegedly developed a rather unique ability unbecoming of a plant —the ability to walk. The palm in question is Socratea exorrhiza, also nicknamed the “Walking Palm”. The bizarre idea stems from the fact that scientists are unable to explain the tree’s strange stilt-like roots. Found in tropical rainforests of Central and South America, the Socratea exorrhiza develops long and sturdy roots that grow outwards from the base of the tree, several feet off the ground, and take root in the soil around, giving it the appearance of multiple legs. It wasn’t long before people started to believe that these roots actually act like legs enabling the palm tree to literally walk in the forest.

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Photo credit: www.palmpedia.net

The amazing story of the walking palm tree has been told by rainforest guides to tourists for years, and appears in many sources both in print and on the web. It is said that the tree “walks” from shade to sunlight by growing roots in the direction it wants to travel, and then allowing the old roots to slowly lift into the air and die. This allows the tree to slowly move towards the side where the new roots are growing. The process is said to take a couple of years, while one palaeobiologist suggesting the tree moves two or three centimeters per day.

It’s such a fascinating story that many tend to believe it, like our palaeobiologist from the Earth Science Institute in Bratislava. Unfortunately, the walking tree is a myth.

The idea of the walking tree was first suggested by John H. Bodley in 1980 who thought that such an ability allows the palm to “walk away” from the point of germination if another tree falls on the seedling and knocks it over. This way, the tree can move away from obstacles that are major hazards for immature palms.

Biologist Gerardo Avalos, director of the Center for Sustainable Development Studies in Atenas, Costa Rica, and —according to LiveScience.com— one of the world's top experts on the Socratea exorrhiza, published a detailed study of the palm and its root in 2005 where he observed that the walking tree can't walk because its roots don't move. A few roots on one side or another may die off, but the trunk itself remains rooted to the spot.

socratea-exorrhiza-timelapse

Some people want to see the Socratea exorrhiza walking. Alas, no such time lapse movie exist.

"My paper proves that the belief of the walking palm is just a myth," Avalos told Life's Little Mysteries."Thinking that a palm tree could actually track canopy light changes by moving slowly over the forest floor … is a myth that tourist guides find amusing to tell visitors to the rainforest."

The myth was also debunked in the December 2009 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. “As interesting as it would be to think that when no one is around trees walk the rainforest floor, it is a mere myth,” it read. The article also cited two detailed studies that came to this conclusion.

Researchers are still unsure what role these unique stilt roots play. Some suggest that the multiple roots allow the tree to be more stable in swampy areas, or when there is too much debris in the ground as they can avoid it by moving their roots. It has been suggested that stilt roots allow the palm to grow taller to reach light without having to increase the diameter of the stem, thus investing in less biomass in underground roots than other palms. Of course, none of these theories have ever been confirmed. More importantly, nobody has seen these palm trees walk.

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Photo credit: Sandor Weisz/Flickr

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Photo credit: Ryan Somma/Flickr

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Photo credit: Katja Schulz/Flickr

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Photo credit: www.palmpedia.net

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