Animals That Live in Balsa Trees
by Kate Hofmann
In the rainforests of tropical South America, food is easy for animals to find—most of the time. But at the end of the rainy season, the feast of nectar, seeds, and fruit dries up for a while. Many animals would get hungry indeed if it weren't for one very important kind of tree.
It's called the balsa tree, and its flowers open just when animals are hungriest. That makes balsa trees a happening hangout for a few months of the year. Everybody's invited, and guests arrive both day and night. It's a nonstop party-till-you-drop in these leafy treetops.
As at most parties, guests gather around the yummiest food. In this case, that's the party-size flowers. Each one is as big as an ice-cream cone and shaped like one, too. Inside is a pool of nectar—a sweet treat that attracts all kinds of animals. Let's drop in and see who's here.
As darkness falls, a woolly opossum sets off along a balsa branch to find a flower and sample its nectar (above). At top right, another furry mammal called a kinkajou (KING-kuh-joo) is about to dip its tongue into the sweet liquid.
This bat above is taking off after sipping from a balsa flower. Nectar splashes as it flies away. Bats carry pollen from one flower to another as they feed, which helps the balsa flowers make seeds.
Remember the woolly opossum hurrying along on the first page? Here's where it was headed (top left). Now it slurps up nectar—and maybe even a bonus insect or two that got trapped in the sticky liquid. At top right another nighttime partier is hanging out: A katydid is snacking on the powdery yellow pollen that covers the center of the flower.
The bees (above right) have flown inside a balsa flower to get the nectar and pollen. Unlike most kinds of bees, these are nocturnal: They come out after the sun goes down. Other kinds of bees visit the balsa in the daytime. By dividing up the visiting hours, all the bees get their share.
HOVER FOR YOUR SUPPER
In the daylight hours, a different group of animals takes over the balsa party. The hummingbirds (top left) have a special way to get their meal. Their bills aren't long enough to reach from the top of the flower all the way down to the nectar. Instead, they poke between the petals to steal a sip.
As the party goes on, day after day, the flowers ripen into seedpods. Each pod is stuffed with cottony fluff and lots of tiny seeds. The parakeet above is pulling out the fluff to get to the seeds. Later, other kinds of birds may gather the fluff to make their nests.
Monkeys join the balsa fun, too. The white-faced capuchin (kah-POO-chin) above center is after nectar and more. It will sometimes break off the whole flower, eating the inner part with the pollen on it and tossing away the petals. Like the bees, the monkeys divide up the goodies. At night, capuchins go to bed and owl monkeys come to the party.
GUESTS FOR DINNER
The young boa constrictor (top right) may be resting on a flower, but that lovely bloom isn't on its menu. Instead the patient snake hopes to make a meal of one of the other party guests!
Perhaps you know the wood of the balsa tree. It's strong but very light, so it's often used for model airplanes and other kits. But now you know something else that's even better: A balsa is the life of one terrific party!