Common Name: Kapok Tree
Latin Name: Ceiba pentandra
Family: Malvaceae


Range and Abundance:
Originally native to South America but has since spread to Africa, Mexico and Caribbean regions (2). It is typically found in warm, wet environments such as tropical rainforests. Despite its size, it is a common occurrence in many tropical rainforests as long as these regions provide adequate rainfall for the species to gro.

Coloration and Morphology:
This tree can reach up to 60-70 meters tall and three meters wide, making it one of the largest trees on the planet (4). One of its distinguishing features, its buttress roots, grow largely above ground and provide the necessary support the tree needs to reach such heights. Its trunk typically contains large thorns that are rounded at the tips (4). Its leaves contain 5-9 leaflets, around 8 inches long each and approximately two inches wide. The Kapok Tree has a smooth, gray trunk, with branches that grow horizontally (4). It exhibits an umbrella shaped crown, which is found among the canopy of the forest. During the dry season, mostly all of its leaves are shed. This classifies the tree as drought deciduous. Flowers have 5 petals each, each one approximately 2.5 cm long, and are white or light pink in color.

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Kapok Tree at La Selva



Reproductive cycle (flowering/fruit season):
The Kapok Tree is an Angiosperm, meaning it is a flowering plant. Flowers open once a year in the early evening and emit a foul odor to attract mammal pollinators, such as bats (1). However, these flowers also attract honeybees, as they provide a unique source of nectar and pollen. These flowers then develop into green seedpods about 6 inches long with brown seeds and wooly fibers. The fibers of these seedpods have a variety of commercial uses, most commonly providing insulation for various products ranging from life-jackets to stuffed toys. Seeds are wind-born, allowing for widespread diversity of this tree (1). This ensures that the offspring of a parent tree will not compete with the parent for resources and space, both of which the Kapok Tree needs in abundance (2).

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Seedpod containing the economical fibers of the Kapok Tree



Habitat:
The Kapok Tree is an emergent tree found in tropical rainforests. It is unique in that it expands across all layers of rainforest habitat structure, extending from the shady undergrowth, which is occupied by its buttress roots, to the canopy. It is typically the tallest tree in its ecosystem, making it a critical component of the canopy’s composition (3).

Ecology:
The Kapok Tree is a keystone species, with its canopy providing homes for birds, insects, and climbing mammals that use the canopy as a method of transportation and a way to avoid predators. Its branches provide homes for epiphytes and animals, which in turn are food for other organisms. These epiphytes use the sturdy branches as a structure from which to originate growth. Its roots are typically in a buttress structure, which create separate living spaces for burrowing or small mammals and shady, cool places for some insects and plants. The unique, above-ground method of growth of these roots provide mechanical support for the immense weight and height of the Kapok Tree.

Personal Experience:
It was not difficult to spot the Kapok Tree while in La Selva. Though buttress roots are not isolated to this one species, it is hard to miss the immensity of the Kapok’s tree trunk. It was spotted multiple times in close proximity to the paths throughout the station, and I could often see multiple species of insects, arachnids, reptiles, or amphibians existing among its roots or on the trunk. It was also a habitat for many birds that perched among its branches higher in the canopy. I was unable to spot any small mammals among its roots, though this may be more a result of the relative scarcity of mammals observed in comparison to other organisms rather than the Kapok’s unsuitability as a habitat.



References:

  1. Gribel, R. et al. (1999). Flowering phenology and pollination biology of Ceiba pentandra (Bombacaceae) in Central Amazonia. Trop Ecol 15: 247-263.
  2. Dick, C.W. et al. (2007). Extreme long-distance dispersal of the lowland tropical rainforest tree Ceiba pentandra L. (Malvaceae) in Africa and the Neotropics. Mol Ecol 16: 3039-3049.
  3. Frankie, G.W. et al. (1974). Comparative phenological studies of trees in tropical wet and dry forests in the lowlands of Costa Rica. J Ecol 62: 881-919.
  4. Rainforest Alliance. (1987). “Kapok Tree (Ceiba pentandra)”. http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/kids/species-profiles/kapok-tree (4/28/12).