Ents – the walking, talking tree behemoths that inhabit the fantasy world of Middle-earth – aren’t real. Saying that, there have been whisperings in the scientific community that a specific species of tree native to Central and South America, Socratea exorrhiza, may be able to actually move around the landscape.
So is this tree, also known as the “Walking Palm,” able to slink around rainforests when no one is looking? Do they really stalk the land looking for the best patches of sunlight and soil? Sadly, all evidence suggests that this is nothing more than fiction, but the story behind this pervasive myth is rather interesting.
Recently, there has been renewed interest in these trees’ supposedly otherworldly abilities, but debate over their locomotive potential has, somewhat remarkably, been going on for over five decades. The trees have long been known to have stilt-like roots, which were initially thought to be an adaptation to flooding. When the ground beneath them became saturated, these roots would give the palm trees additional structural stability, preventing them from falling over.
A paper in 1980 put forward another hypothesis: If an S. exorrhiza was knocked over, these roots could begin to grow outwards into the nearest soil. When these roots gain enough traction, they could pull the tree back upright, allowing it to grow normally again. This could potentially keep happening, allowing these trees to “walk” across the landscape.
Nobody, however, has seen this in person – despite tour guides telling you otherwise. Additionally, several studies have been published thoroughly debunking this idea of vegetation-based locomotion.
Did that tree wander off from the pack? Probably not. Reinaudo Aguilar/Flickr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
It has also been proposed that the stilt roots allow these plants to grow in areas populated with a plethora of debris, something that would prevent many other types of flora with less intrepid roots from taking over the territory.
This is a far more sensible suggestion than the idea that these trees are gallivanting around at night, but the rumors continue to appear online, with some suggesting that these trees can move up to 20 meters (roughly 66 feet) per year. If true, this would mean that a considerable number of walking palms have migrated up to a kilometer (0.6 miles) in 50 years – something that someone, somewhere would have probably noticed by now if it were actually happening.
Along with persistently mischievous tour guides, the tree’s nickname is only serving to exacerbate things, as do photographs that look like these trees have been caught in the act of moving around on their “stilts.” Although scientists still don’t know what advantage the long stilt-like roots provide to the trees, we can confidently say they are – sadly – not stealthy Ents.
Main image: Reinaudo Aguilar/Flickr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0