The Suitcase Lady


March 2, 2010, 9:40 pm

Nature definitely painted the tropics in technicolor. The flora and fauna that circle the middle of the planet are an explosion of vivid colors.

I do understand some of the purposes of this extravagant coloration; others elude me. But one fact is certain: nature is not putting on this color show to make the human species happy. Our joy in the spectacle is merely a byproduct. Lucky us.

If I had to pick my favorite tropical flower, it would not, in fact, be a flower. I would choose bougainvillea, which is a bract, a colored leaf masquerading as a flower. Think of a poinsettia. The red “petals” are leaves. Tiny true flowers are in the center of the leaves.

Bougainvillea, which was named after an 18th century French navigator, can sprawl over entire walls, roofs and fences. Among the bracts’ colors are eye-popping hues of magenta, cerise, fuchsia, red and salmon. These flaming colors attract pollinators to the plant.

Many tropical frogs are also infused with jewel-like colors. The one inch long Blue-Jeans or Strawberry Poison dart frog of Costa Rica, for example, sports bright blue legs and a flaming red head and back. As with other vividly colored poison dart frogs, the purpose is survival. “Eat me and die (or hurt)” is the message being sent to other animals considering a froggy lunch.

Some tropical insects look as if they are covered with glitter. How can these gold bugs’ sparkles have any practical use? The answer is camouflage. A tropical rainforest alternates between dazzling sun and rain. Raindrops on the giant leaves sparkle, and the gold bugs blend right in.

I recently had the good fortune to see a surreal example of tropical coloration. We were birdwatching in Florida when giant, pink objects started dropping out of the sky into the estuary.  They would have made flamingos look pale by comparison. The flock of over 25 birds were Roseate Spoonbills. These birds stand 32 inches tall and have wingspans of 50 inches. What possible reason could nature have for making neon pink birds? The color comes from the food the eat, but I’m surmising something to do with sex is going on as well!

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