The Socratea exorrhiza is perhaps the world’s only mobile tree. They say its complicated system of roots also serves as legs, helping the tree constantly move towards sunlight as the seasons change. Walking trees can apparently move up to 2-3 cm per day, or 20 meters per year. That may not sound like much, but it’s pretty much a marathon by tree-standards.
Rainforest guides in Latin American countries like Ecuador have been telling tourists about the amazing walking trees for decades now. The most common version of the story is that the tree slowly ‘walks’ in search of the sun by growing new roots towards the light and allowing its old roots to die. The unusual roots, split from the trunk a few feet above the ground, add to the illusion of the tree having legs.
“As the soil erodes, the tree grows new, long roots that find new and more solid ground, sometimes up to 20m,” explained Peter Vrsansky, a palaeobiologist from the Slovak Academy of Sciences who lived for a few months in the Unesco Sumaco Biosphere Reserve, about a day’s journey from Ecuador’s capital Quito.
Photo: Peter Vrsansky
“Then, slowly, as the roots settle in the new soil and the tree bends patiently towards the new roots, the old roots slowly lift into the air. The whole process for the tree to relocate to a new place with better sunlight and more solid ground can take a couple of years.”
According to Wikipedia, “John H. Bodley suggested in 1980 that they in fact allow the palm to “walk” away from the point of germination if another tree falls on the seedling and knocks it over. If such an event occurs then the palm produces new vertical stilt roots and can then right itself, the original roots rotting away.”
Unsurprisingly, most scientists don’t believe that the walking trees can actually relocate. According to a Live Science article from 2012: “A tree that walks in search of the sun is a fascinating, bizarre story. Alas, it’s not true; the tree is real enough, but it doesn’t walk. It sits where it sprouted, not moving except under the force of wind (or an axe).”
Gerardo Avalos, a biologist and director of the Center for Sustainable Development Studies in Costa Rica, happens to be one of the world’s top experts on the Socratea exorrhiza species. And he agrees that the walking tree can’t really walk, based on extensive analysis he conducted in 2005. “My paper proves that the belief of the walking palm is just a myth,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries.
“Thinking that a palm tree could actually track canopy light changes by moving slowly over the forest floor… is a myth that tourist guides find amusing to tell visitors to the rainforest.”
Myth or not, the walking trees continue to fascinate tourists visiting Ecuador.