“The Devil's Gardens”


(Basic 08 – Get Comfortable with Visual Aids / CC Manual, Jun. 1, 2006, HSBC Demo Meeting)


The Devil’s Gardens.  What thoughts does the phrase evoke for you?  Could it be the name of a religious ritual?  Another Dan Brown moneymaker perhaps? – ala Da Vinci Code?  No… no…  It’s none of those.  (long pause)  What I’m about to tell you is a strange phenomenon that takes place deep in the heart of the jungles of the Amazon Rainforest in Western Peru.

THE AMAZON RAINFOREST

The Amazon Rainforest is a wide expanse of about 6 million sq kms and covers much of South America.  That includes Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.  At the upper canopy of the rainforest, the tops of trees reach 30m or 100 ft. and above.  Then there is the middle layer.  The middle layer is the densest layer of the rainforest.  The growth at the middle layer is so dense that only 1 percent of the sunlight above the forest canopy reach the forest floorThe rainforest is densely populated with a remarkable diversity of trees, vines, shurbs and wildflowers.  A remarkable diversity.

THE GARDENS

So you ask, where do the Devil’s Gardens come into the picture?  Well,randomly scattered in this rainforest are patches of land that do not demonstrate this diversity.  Instead, there is only one plant specie that lives and thrives in each of these patches.  The only tree that grows in these patches or gardens has the scientific name of Duroia Hirsuta.  But let’s call it the Hirsuta tree for short.  Now here’s what makes the patches or gardens remarkable.  The Hirsuta trees grow to a maximum of only 12 feet.  Contrast that to the towering height of 100 feet that starts the forest canopy.  If you were walking in the the jungle and step into this garden you’d immediately notice the difference between the garden and the surrounding vegetation and you get this strange feeling that someone or something has planted these Hirsuta trees.

THE SPIRITS

Who is this someone?  Who do the native Peruvians say tend to these Gardens?  Like in many other cultures, beliefs abound especially in and around a forest.  The rainforest is said to be a dwelling place for many spirits – some good and some evilThere is a spirit called the Chuyachaqui.  This spirit typically takes the form of a dwarf with a hoof on one leg and a human foot on the otherIt can also change its form into an old man who befriends you.  But he actually deceives and misleads you until you are lost in the thick of the jungle.  The Chuyachaqui is said to live in these gardens and tends the Hirsuta trees.  The native Peruvians avoid these gardens in fear of this spirit, or at least traverse these gardens cautiously.  Since most people equate the Chuyachaqui to an Evil Spirit or the Devil, the phrase “Devil’s gardens” was coined.  And for many, many generations, that is what they have been called… The Devil’s Gardens.

THE STUDY

Well, that was until a band of biologists led by Megan Frederickson from Stanford University attempted to explain what was going on in the course of a 4-year field study.  Several months ago, the National Geographic released an intriguing story of how these biologists concluded that the “devil” responsible for these gardens was an ant specie called Myrmelachista SchumanniOr let’s call it the Schumanni ant for short.  So, why do these ants “tend” these Hirsuta trees?  Well, among other things, these trees have hollow stems where the ants love to nest.  But the answer to the mystery doesn’t stop there.  These ants, not only love these Hirsuta trees, but would kill any other non-hirsuta tree that will grow within the vicinity of their colony.  How do they do this?  By stinging these foreign plants with their built-in herbicide called formic acid.  Formic acid is a simple organic acid and appears in all red ants.

THE TEST

To test this hypothesis, the biologists planted Cedar plants inside the garden.  Cedars are non-Hirsuta plants.  And then, as if on cue, worker ants immediately crawl out and climb these Cedar plants.  They go straight to the Cedar leaves.  Punch a hole in the leaves and inject the leaves with formic acid.  In five hours the Cedar leaves turn from green to brown.  In 24 hours the Cedar plant begins to die.  In five days, all the leaves fall off leaving a shirvelled, withered, dead Cedar plant.

According to the study, the idea is that by killing other plants, the ants create space for young Hirsuta saplings to grow, thereby not only preserving the ant colony but also allowing it to expand... as ants occupy new nesting sites in the saplings.  This only shows that it is the ant, and not the devil, which is the owner and gardener.  Case closed?  Well, this is certainly one case where “truth is stranger than fiction” – believe it or not.