IN THE Philippines, we are all praises for the coconut. Though technically a palm, we call it the tree of life. Every part of it is useful. The fruit, the juice, the husk and the shell. Practically all Filipino “kakanin” has some coconut content in it. The leaves are turned into brooms. The coco fiber or coir has several uses. After the palm’s useful life, the trunk can be turned into coco lumber. Don’t forget the tuba too.
But while the coconut is a blessing in the tropics where it is a native species, introducing it to a place where it is not native can spell doom for the native species, both plants and animals. In short, the tree of wonder can also become a tree of doom. I can be an invasive species that can cause ecological or economic harm in a new environment.
I came upon this realization when I read a report by Stanford University in the United States, published as early as 2010. According to Stanford researchers, coconuts are also changing the very landscapes they grace. How’s that? Seabirds are shunning the palms as nesting sites, favoring other tree species instead, which affects the island ecosystems.
The study was done on Palmyra Atoll in the South Pacific. Palmyra lies roughly midway between Hawaii and Tahiti. Seabirds in the atoll, most of which are colonial species ( they like to nest in groups), avoid the coconut because they have relatively small canopies with spiky, sharp leaves, that don’t make particularly good nesting habitat for these birds. The long branchless trunks of the palms also lack the crooks and crannies -- features crucial to accommodating nests -- that are abundant on most other branching native trees. It is also possible that rats, which climb the palms to feed on young coconuts, may contribute to the seabirds' bypassing of the palms.
So what is the effect of the birds bypassing coconuts as nesting sites? With the birds gone, the rich cargo of guano that they normally dispense under their nesting sites is also gone. Guano is the accumulated excrement of seabirds. As a manure, guano is a highly effective fertilizer due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium which are key nutrients essential for plant growth.
The absence of that precious fertilizer has caused the soil around the palms to become nutritionally deficient. That, in turn, is lowering the nutritional content of plant species growing around the palms and is causing the creatures that feed on those plants, such as crabs and grasshoppers, to forage elsewhere. The report said that "an apparently innocuous change to these plant communities can disrupt invisible connections among ecosystems and potentially trigger a cascade of change that can fundamentally alter those ecosystems."
This is an important lesson for travelers. We should not attempt to smuggle non-native species into our soil. They may look harmless, but they can create havoc to our local ecosystem. This is precisely the reason why it is not allowed to bring in seeds and plants from other countries into the Philippines.
December 09, 2021
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