Tourists are familiar with the Lodoicea maldivica palm, also called coco de mer, mainly because of their bizarrely shaped fruits and because the plant produces the world’s largest known seed. Scientists, however, are fascinated by the huge plants – which are abundant on the Seychelles islands of Praslin and Curieuse – for entirely different reasons. The coco de mer palm engages in a lot of effort for reproduction, producing large amounts of pollen and huge fruits that cannot be spread around, but rather fall to the ground at the base. “This is an enormous commitment of energy in very nutrient-poor soil – it does not really make sense,” says Dr. Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury of the Department of Biology at TU Darmstadt, Germany, describing the contradiction that brought about the study by a group of researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the Seychelles Islands Foundation, and TU Darmstadt. “We asked ourselves how these palms get the nutrients they need for this.” The study of the slow-growing coco de mer palm trees in the UNESCO Heritage Site Vallée de Mai on Praslin took several years. The scientists measured the amounts of phosphate and nitrogen that the palms invest into reproduction and growth, the amount available of these nutrients in the soil, the amount of water that flowed down the palm trunk during rain showers, as well as soil moisture in certain areas around the plants. The researchers found that the special leaves of the coco de mer palm play a particular role. The broad, slightly feathery leaves reach enormous size – sometimes up to 10 square meters – and have a funnel shape, forming a tube that goes down the trunk. As a result, the palm captures water as well as animal and plant organic waste and debris.
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