On June 1, Karla Aparicio hosted a group of Panamanians on Barro Colorado Island. As she guided them down the trail toward the BCI’s Big Tree, she noticed a rather unusual amount of light up ahead. BCI’s tree was no longer standing. “When we entered the new gap and realized what had happened, it was so impressive. The whole crown of the tree was on the ground and there were tons of bees and ants milling around looking lost!”
Home to epiphytic orchids and cacti, bromeliads and Spanish moss as well as to sloths, monkeys, bats, and birds, the late Big Tree, a kapok (Ceiba pentandra) definitely qualified as an island icon. It was probably the backdrop for more group photos than any other location on the island.
STRI’s staff scientist Joe Wright, who plans to take a core from the main stem to estimate the age of the tree, asked Robert Van Pelt, an adjunct professor at the Institute for Redwood Ecology at Humboldt State University and big tree enthusiast, to comment on BCI’s emblematic tree stature, which held the world record for largest crown:
“The very large base was 13m in one direction, tapering to a 2m cylindrical trunk above the buttressing; ending in a wide crown whose highest leaf reached 47m. What was most remarkable about the BCI tree was the crown spread, which based on 8 crown radii, averaged 60m in diameter. This was by far the largest crown known on the planet for a tree with a single stem. There are several banyans in India and elsewhere larger than this, but none with a single stem. For a self-supporting crown with no cables or other human impacts, I have only ever measured two species to exceed 50m in diameter – Ceiba and Albitzia saman.”
The trunk of the tree is still standing in the center of a huge clearing, a scene of total destruction where no other whole trees are left and the ground is covered in foliage and vines. “This black stuff looks like ash, but it’s rotten wood and termite nest material,” explained Javier Ballesteros as he examined the area of the crown that broke off from the trunk. He and the Fungal Dimensions project team were at the site this week using their Picus Sonic Tomograph to see if individual branches of the tree were rotten as well.
Good-bye Big Tree. You will be missed.