LIFE ON MARS? LET’S SEARCH A LITTLE CLOSER TO HOME

I was looking up at the sky the other night, wondering about the life that could be out there. Then I looked a few feet lower at the trees that framed that star-studded universe and thought, ‘What about the life right there?’

With all the money, effort and imagination we put into space exploration, we have a tendency to forget about the wonder of our own planet – particularly the forests. Of all Earth’s ecosystems, they are among the least explored and the most populous when it comes to life, much of which is yet to be discovered due to the difficulty of accessing these forests and the lack of funding for scientific ventures.

Rainforest in Borneo

Expeditions into forests are difficult for many reasons. Intense climate, dense vegetation, parasites and the difficulty of extraction in the case of an emergency are among the greatest challenges; but certainly no more challenging or expensive than launching missions to Mars. And what have we found there? What will we find there? What is its value, and why do we keep funnelling so much money, energy and imagination into exploring this lifeless planet, and others like it? It sparks our imagination, perhaps; but there are so many other things that spark our imagination and are of inestimable value that can be found right here in the forests of our own planet. Here are just three examples:

Draco lizard, photograph by Premaphotos, Alamy

Gigantic species that give life to the entire planet. Trees literally pump out the oxygen that all of Earth’s creatures need to survive, and they absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale. A single tree can produce as much as oxygen in one season as 10 people can inhale in a year. Forests also create their own climates, promoting regular rainfall and predictable weather patterns that benefit not just the forests, but the farmers who live on the periphery and beyond. Even when they’re dead, trees go on giving life by providing homes and food for a whole myriad of creatures. Marvellous things, trees.

Alien-like creatures with special powers. Found in the forests of South East Asia, Draco lizards are under intense pressure from predators, particularly on the ground, and there is added pressure for territory and food (these lizards tend to claim entire trees as their own). Over millennia these reptiles have developed a unique way of escaping danger and travelling through the tree tops by extending flaps of skin on either side of their body. Acting as wings, they carry the lizards as far as 60 metres, giving them the ability to escape any threat and reach new territory a great distance from the one they are escaping – an entire world away, if you will.

Ripe fig

Giants and dwarfs that give life to one another. Fig trees would not survive without a certain tiny wasp, and visa versa. The ‘seeds’ inside the inflorescence (the fruit of a fig is not actually a fruit, but a cluster of seeds and flowers inside a bulbous stem) of a fig tree are, in effect, the ovaries of the tree; for them to flower they need pollination. In a wonderful example of coevolution, the queen of the fig wasp makes her way into the inflorescence through a tiny opening; once inside she deposits her eggs, simultaneously shedding the pollen she carried with her from another fig and thereby fertilising the ‘ovaries’. Unable to escape, she dies within and is digested by the fig, thereby providing nourishment. Once the eggs hatch, male and female wasps mate with one another other (brothers and sisters, indeed!), then the females collect pollen while the males begin carving a path to the fig’s exterior. Wingless, this is not for the males to escape, but rather to create an opening for the winged females. After escaping, the females will pollinate another fig as queens; meanwhile, the males spend their entire lifecycle within a single fruit. One could only imagine such coexistence on other planets, but here it is real.

These three examples are among countless others in the forests – many remain undiscovered for lack of scientific funding. If it’s life or imagination we’re looking for in the night sky, perhaps we need only to look a little lower – into the trees.

The world’s rainforests are depleting, threatening the wildlife that thrives there and contributing to climate change. At PURE 2016 we asked PUREists to make one small promise that can Change Worlds, and many pledged to take steps to use sustainable products and materials and recycle wherever possible.

Fig tree

Previously a freelance journalist and editor of Africa Geographic, Anton Crone is CEO of Safarious, an online travel portal to the world’s wild places. Anton not only focuses on wildlife, he also finds himself drawn to the people he meets on his travels. He looks at journalism as a way to connect people of differing creeds and cultures, and through his writing and photography he tries to uphold the importance of the communities that live side by side with wildlife.