Welcome to cryptophile, the series in which I discuss fantastical creatures and the biological mechanisms that might or might not make them plausible. Today I’m going to discuss ents, well, talking and walking creatures that look like trees. Although the ents may be the classic example of this creature that comes to mind, there are equivalents in folklore that predate this name, and go by the slightly less romantic name ‘talking trees’. Although, I guess, most of these don’t walk. In any case, I want to give a shout out to them too. Moses talked to a burning bush, Merry and Pippin talked to treebeard, burning apples and walking, warring oranges.
So obviously there aren’t any talking trees in real life. Sorry to spoil that early on. But there are plants that move, and participate in activities that we usually associate more with animals. Take the venus fly trap for instance. These carnivorous plants have modified leaves that look, and act (well, kind of), like mouths. The leaves are covered with tiny hairs, and when two of these hairs are stimulated within around twenty seconds, the mouth closes, and, as the name might suggest, a fly is trapped. Unfortunately for the fly, this isn’t your friendly neighbourhood house plant. It’s doomed to die, digested by the plant. Other plants exist that eject pollen at rapid speeds to spread their, well, seeds. The himalayan balsam, an invasive species of plant found all over the Northern Hemisphere, has seed pods, that, when disturbed, explode, scattering their seeds around them in a burst.
Plants can move in other ways to. Specifically, some move to make the most of the sunlight. The plant hormone auxin, builds up on the ends of developing stems, to lean the plant towards where it will receive the most sunlight, and therefore, the most energy. So when you see a plant leaning towards the sun, don’t think of it as moving towards its energy source, but growing towards it. Despite that disclaimer, however, growing is a movement of sorts, and while I’m not convinced for one second that ents could have developed the ability to walk by modifying this behaviour, it is interesting enough to note, and indeed, a walking plant would have much more efficient ways of moving into the sun’s path. Which really begs the question: why do ents live in a dark forest, clearly not peeking far above the canopy, when they can walk into open fields and steal boatloads of sunlight from shorter plants like grasses?
Something tells me Tolkien didn’t consider that when picturing these creatures. Perhaps because I’ve been thinking about this the wrong way around, and instead of ents being plants that developed animal-like behaviours, they represent animals that developed more plant-like characteristics?
Well, animals just like that already exist.
In a way.
Obviously besides some crude similarities to certain physiological conditions, we don’t have any animals surrounded by bark. In addition, the need for foliage and its distinctive appearance in plants is due to the increased surface area to volume ratio it allows. Through this simple trick of shape versus size, photosynthesis, the process by which plants produce energy from light and carbon dioxide in the air, becomes as efficient as it can be without harming the plant in other ways (for example, making it too structurally weak to stand, or to defend its leaves against animals that would otherwise eat them).
With a significant part of plant appearance designed to help photosynthesis along then, it might surprise you to find out that photosynthetic animals exist. These animals, however, cannot use photosynthesis directly without aid, so much of the legwork of this process is done by symbiotic algae – microscopic plants (or simply other photosynthetic organisms, depending on how you want to define ‘plant’), which provide the animal with the ability to make energy from light in return for protection from damage and predation. Photosynthetic corals for example, produce incredible rocky structures (which, through the generations, form coral reefs), with their soft parts mostly hidden away inside, making them a pretty tricky meal to get at, obviously avoiding death at the hands of predators, currents, and other physical dangers is an attractive option for their symbiotic algae, who in return produce energy and, with it, the gorgeous colours of the Great Barrier Reef and other similar structures. The corals that grow on the calmer parts of reefs, away from the buffering of waves and facing the calm waters that tend to thrive behind them, do appear almost plant-like in their shape, and branch out into very interesting forms.
Photosynthetic animals that we might recognise as looking more animalian include slugs, insects and even salamanders. The green sea slug in particular is very interesting, as it acquires the chloroplasts (essentially biological factories within plant and algae cells that allow them to make energy from light and carbon dioxide – originally a bacterial cell that became incorporated into their DNA… really, I could write a whole blog post just about them) it needs to photosynthesise, from its food. Not symbiosis then at all, but just really clever predation.
Talking trees are a pretty old legend at this point. And the mythology around plants does follow a pattern in the sense that it’s tended to try and make them seen more human, when other mythological figures, such as minotaurs and trolls are essentially very human-like animals. I like to think that this comes from a desire to more closely understand the world around us, a world where we can talk to these colossal organisms that have seen hundreds of years pass by, but that’s probably a flight of fancy. I mean, it’s probably just as likely that these things were invented to scare children into staying indoors, or by people seeing or hearing things in the pitch black of pre-industrial forests and fields at night. The thing is though, depending on how the bark of a tree changes throughout its life, whether through genetics, time, disease, or human intervention, trees can sometimes look like they bear human faces to us, creatures primed to recognise human faces. Like the legend of the mandrake, the plant whose roots can resemble little people depending on their growths, we ultimately are looking at plants with human eyes, and that, as always, comes with its own set of biases.
Author’s Note: This post took about two months longer than it should have. Full disclosure, I’m currently undertaking a master’s degree and submitting phd applications, two things I refuse to half-arse. Along with this I have been going through some body issues you might be able to guess at from a certain previous post. The stress from those confounding factors meant that something had to be put on the back burner, for my sanity’s sake. Unfortunately, that thing was this post coming out on time. Another problem was that this topic became a lot bigger than I had originally planned it, as much as something interesting me too much is a problem. My apologies. I promise to be more punctual with the next instalment in this series.
All images are from wikimedia commons and are free to use.