Zingiberales includes economically-important food crops (e.g., bananas, plantains, arrowroot, ginger, galangal), cultivated ornamentals, and wild-harvested plants for basketry. World-wide, the order includes 8 families—Cannaceae, Costaceae, Heliconiaceae, Lowiaceae, Marantaceae, Musaceae, Strelitziaceae, and Zingiberaceae—with 92 genera and ca. 2100 species.
The large leaves of these plants open slowly like a long upright tube. Water and debris collect within the tubes and quickly attracts a community of micro-organisms and diverse arthropods (e.g., flies, beetles, ants, mites, spides), each with different ecological roles as herbivores, predators, parasites, and detritivores; thus, a small ecosystem forms within these leaf rolls. In the upright inflorescences, each rigid concave bract around flowers also collects rainwater and debris. Because the bract is more open, the watery pool and its ecosystem are highly dynamic (e.g., drying and flooding). The water-based terrestrial habitats are called phytotelmata.
Pitcher plants are the most commonly known and better studied systems but there are numerous other plants that offer such unusual cryptic habitats.
The Zingiberales phytotelmata system provides a relatively simplified terrestrial ecosystem to study species assembly, community interactions, and trophic diversity. However, little is known about the particular species composition and even less is known about their interactions. I work with student teams in surveys of these communities in Peru and Costa Rica.
Current projects: Students in my Peru and Costa Rica field classes have helped assemble >200 community samples that are the basis for several biodiversity studies. Dr. Michael Darby/British Museum is describing many new species of Ptiliidae beetles (see Beetles of Peru project). Dr. Barbara Hayford/Wayne State College, NE, USA, is leading 3 manuscript projects on Diptera (flies). Several more manuscripts are being authored with the students.
Funding: UCR-KU Funds (PI: CS Chaboo; co-PIs Paul Hanson and Mauricio Fernandez) supported 2015 & 2016 expeditions.
Frank JH, LP Lounibos (Eds.). 1983. Phytotelmata: Terrestrial plants as hosts for aquatic insect communities. Medford (NJ): Plexus, 293 p.
Kitching RL. 2000. Food webs and container habitats: The natural history and ecology of phytotelmata. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 431 p.
Dr. Howard Frank, University of Florida, maintains websites on phytolemata: http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/frank/bromeliadbiota/bromfit.htm