How did the rainforest trees find which animals could carry their seeds far and wide? By inviting everyone to The Rainforest Ball, of course! A story to celebrate National Tree Day, from my book Stories from the Wildworld.
The Rainforest Ball
Long ago, the rainforest grew thick and tall and green and shady over much of this wide land. But many of the rainforest trees were worried about their children, who were finding it hard to leave home.
Some time before then, when the trees had started growing close together to form rainforest, the same trees had discovered that small seeds do not survive well on the rainforest floor, in the deep dark shade. A seed would often die from lack of light, even before it had grown its first leaf. So in each seed the parent tree began to pack a little lunch box of goodies, to nourish the seed while it grew its first leaves. Now the seeds of the rainforest trees were much better at surviving in the shade of the forest floor, but the added lunch box of goodies also meant that each seed had become much larger and heavier than before.
The rainforest trees now had another problem. When their seeds were ripe, they would just fall under the parent tree, and would try to sprout and grow where they fell. This was because the seeds were now too heavy for the wind to move them far away from their parents. So the rainforest trees were sad, as they wanted their children to be free to explore the world, far and wide. (Plus, they didn’t really want to have all of their children living at home for the rest of their lives). But what could be done to help move the seeds?
One day a huge old laurel tree was thinking about this very question as she watched a black cockatoo devour a hoop pine cone. The bird ate a few hoop pine seeds, then flew off carrying a piece of pine cone with some seeds still lodged within. Aha! thought the laurel. Perhaps that’s it. Maybe we can find an animal that can carry our seeds away for us. But then she thought the idea must be silly. For surely the animal would just eat the seed, and nothing would be achieved? But the laurel still mentioned the idea to her neighbour, a rather excitable young lilly pilly tree.
“Wow! That’s a great idea!” said the lilly pilly. “It could be a partnership. If the animals could prove to us that they could carry the seeds away, and not harm them, then maybe we could offer them something in return as a thank you.”
“Or a bribe” said a gruff, twisted churnwood tree, who was listening too. “Sugar seems to excite them,” he added.
“They also like the protein in pollen” said the hoop pine, who was shedding lots of pollen at that very moment from his tall spire, which towered over the upper branches of the other trees.
“Why don’t we have a ball?” blurted out a strappy little quandong tree.
All the trees fell silent.
“A WHAT?” said the churnwood.
“A… a b-ball” said the quandong bravely. “It’s like a big party where people meet each other. We could invite the animals….”
“A competition!” said the lilly pilly, getting even more excited. “Invite the animals and give them a chance to show us how good they are at carrying our seeds far and wide.”
“And without eating them!” squeaked a nervous little bolly gum.
So the date was set for the Rainforest Ball, and all of the animals were invited. The trees put their leafy crowns together and came up with a prize for the animal who could carry a seed safely, far, far away. It would be a tasty and nourishing treat they decided to call a fruit. It would be made of sugar and protein and many other good things, and the seed would be hidden inside it. This way, the animals could see that the trees were keeping their side of the bargain. They would be offering a gift – right at the start – for the work that the animals would do.
Soon word of the Ball, and the competition, raced around the rainforest like a crazy summer cyclone. And, unknown to the trees, some of the animals began to make crafty plans.
Bush Rat, who never could stop chewing something, once she got started, knew she had no hope of winning the competition. Land Mullet – a large, sleek black lizard, with a small blunt head and short stubby legs – would never win either, as she was a homebody, and never moved very far from her burrow. And Wonga Pigeon, who could fly a long way, but already lived mostly on seeds, and who had stones in his gizzard to grind them up, just laughed. “Give up eating seeds!?” he said. “I don’t think so.”
“But that fruit stuff sounds good…” said Bush Rat hungrily, sharpening her long yellow front teeth against each other.
“And what if the trees could find no-one else?” pondered Wonga Pigeon. “Maybe they’d have to give the prize to us!”
But some animals might win, including Flying Fox, who flew many miles every night, and Wompoo Fruit-Dove and Topknot Pigeon, who also flew, and had never taken to putting stones in their gizzards. “They’ll probably get the prize,” said Land Mullet, from where she was basking in the afternoon sun.
“Not if they don’t turn up to the Ball,” said Bush Rat. The other animals looked up curiously.
“I can hear your sneaky mind whirring, Bush Rat,” said Wonga Pigeon. “Do tell …” And the little group of animals continued their discussion, in whispers, for many hours into the night.
* * *
The day of the Ball dawned, and Flying Fox, Wompoo Fruit-Dove and Topknot Pigeon chattered happily as they groomed and preened. Flying Fox polished her black-skinned wings and combed her furry chest, while Wompoo Fruit-Dove brightened the lemon-yellow tip of his red beak. Topknot Pigeon teased up his already boofy crest of grey and rusty feathers. Soon they were ready to go. They flew up, up, up the mountains, for the Ball was to take place at the top.
* * *
Lilly Pilly – resplendent in a mixture of glossy green old leaves and blushing pink new ones – danced with a ruggedly handsome lace monitor, while Wonga Pigeon trotted the tango with the strappy quandong, who wore her new, round, bright blue fruits all around her crown. The Rainforest Ball had begun.
The older trees looked on quietly from the sidelines, as the youngsters danced. The buffet was weighed down with sculpted mounds of gourmet soil, and stone jugs of bubbling spring water for the trees. For the animals, fresh flowers and young leaves had been donated by some of the trees, and a wriggling pile of insects, worms and snails had been brought in by the animals (entry was by invertebrate donation). A large table of assorted rainforest fruits stood in the centre of the clearing, guarded by two burly booyong trees. These fruits would be used for the competition.
After several dances, it was time for the competition to start. Bush Rat, Land Mullet and Wonga Pigeon lined up, along with many others. But Flying Fox, Wompoo and Topknot were nowhere to be seen.
“Let the competition begin!” boomed the hoop pine.
Bush Rat – at the front of the line – pounced on the nearest fruit and ate so fast that it was hard to see what was happening. The trees stood patiently for several minutes, and by this time Bush Rat had devoured three fruits, and their seeds, and was reaching out for another.
“Enough!” boomed the hoop pine. “Disqualified, for destroying seeds and for moving less than 2 centimetres!” (A helpful vine had volunteered to do the measuring.) Bush Rat skulked off with a grin, wiping bits of seed from her whiskers.
Land Mullet waddled up to the table and gulped down as many fruits as possible, and then wobbled back to the sidelines. The trees frowned. “Disqualified!” cried the hoop pine.
Next was Mountain Brushtail Possum, who graciously bowed to the judges, picked up a large fruit, and began to nibble. “Mmmm delicious!” she said thickly, her mouth full of fruit. She carefully ate all the flesh from around the seed. The trees leaned forward, looking closely at the fat possum sitting on its haunches in the middle of the clearing. But then Mountain Brushtail absent-mindedly tossed the seed over her shoulder, as she greedily looked for the next fruit.
“Disqualified!” thundered the hoop pine.
“Oops!” cried Mountain Brushtail, “I forgot about the seed …” And she wandered off, looking embarrassed.
A large black ant was next in line. “What are you doing here?” exclaimed the hoop pine, bending over nearly double to see her.
“I’m entering the competition,” the ant proclaimed, in a matter-of-fact voice. “We ants are very good at carrying seeds. Do it all the time.” The hoop pine looked slightly bewildered.
“Oh come off it,” grumbled the churnwood. “Ants can handle very small seeds, but this is ridiculous.”
“Disqualified!” said the hoop pine, as the ant was licked up by an echidna.
“Are you next?” asked the hoop pine, frowning.
“Oh no Sir,” said the echidna, peering dimly up at the enormous tree. “I’m not a big fan of seeds. I’m just here on termite patrol. At your service, Sir.” And he trundled off to inspect the half-rotten base of a towering satinwood tree.
The line of animals was getting shorter. Wonga Pigeon stood at the end of the queue, trying hard not to grin.
* * *
Meanwhile, many miles away, Flying Fox and her friends had made it to the top of the mountain. But all they found was a vast forest of southern beech trees, swathed in mist.
“We’re looking for the Rainforest Ball,” said Wompoo. “We’d like to enter the fruit and seed competition.”
The southern beech trees shrugged their mossy shoulders. “No Ball here. No fruits either. We like to use the wind to carry our seeds.”
The friends were baffled. “Who told you the Ball was to be held up here?” asked a lyrebird, who was scratching in the leaf-litter nearby.
“Wonga Pigeon,” said Topknot.
“And Bush Rat told me,” added Flying Fox.
“I heard it was down in the hoop pine clearing, on the river flat,” said the lyrebird.
“But that’s miles away!” exclaimed Wompoo.
“Let’s go!” cried Flying Fox, “We can still make it, if we hurry!”
* * *
Back at the Rainforest Ball the trees were starting to wonder if they would ever find an animal that could carry their seeds safely, far away. A blue crayfish had just been disqualified for dragging a fruit off to a waterhole and eating it there. The possibility that floods might wash the seed down the river had been debated, but in the end the trees decided that the seed would probably drown anyway.
Wonga Pigeon now stepped up. He first made a big show of opening his beak so that the trees could see he had no teeth to hurt the seeds. He then strutted up to the table and swallowed a fruit in one gulp. The trees groaned. Hoop pine leaned over and was about to say “Disqual….”
“Wait, wait!” interrupted Wonga Pigeon.
“Yes?” said the hoop pine
“Well, I don’t really like to talk about this while we’re all eating you know,” started Wonga Pigeon. “But the seed will come out again …”
Someone began to giggle.
“From my other end,” said Wonga Pigeon, and he flashed his white feathery bottom at the hoop pine, to drive home his point.
Some of the trees were disgusted, but most of them – the earthy beings that they were – thought this was terrifically funny, and clever too. The forest clearing trembled; the trees and animals roared with laughter.
“We might just have a winner!” declared hoop pine, once the noise had died down, wiping the tears from his rough bark.
But just then, Flying Fox swooped down into the clearing, and Wompoo and Topknot arrived with a clatter of wings.
“It’s a trick!” cried Wompoo.
“He’s got stones in his gizzard!” said Topknot.
“Your seed won’t come out alive!” warned Flying Fox, to a little ebony, whose fruit the Wonga Pigeon had just swallowed.
“We can do it better!” the friends said. “We can carry your seeds far away without hurting them!”
Everyone stared at the new arrivals. Wonga Pigeon looked uncomfortable, but then quickly regained his composure. “Prove it!” he said defiantly.
So Wompoo Fruit-Dove gulped down a sassafras fruit, and Topknot Pigeon swallowed one from a white beech. “And now we need to wait for a while,” they said bashfully.
In the meantime, Flying Fox had picked up a hairy walnut fruit from the table. She flew up to the white booyong and munched on the fruit while hanging upside down from the tree. She then swallowed the half-eaten fruit and the seed too. “Mine doesn’t take as long,” she said, and launched into the air and made about six laps of the clearing, flying slowly. Flying Fox then landed back in the tree, and muttered “Excuse me, but this is how it works …” She gave an enormous burp. The seed popped out of her mouth and landed on the ground.
The hoop pine bent over to look. “I can see that the seed is unharmed. Well done Flying Fox, excellent work!” boomed the hoop pine. Everyone gave a cheer, and the trees began to talk excitedly among themselves.
“Ahem!” creaked the black booyong loudly, trying to get the crowd’s attention. “I think something’s happening here.” Wonga Pigeon was walking around restlessly, but then stopped and pooped out a white dropping. Muffled snickers of laughter came from the crowd, but the trees looked on intently. Wompoo Fruit-Dove and Topknot Pigeon – both trying to look serious, which was impossible, lined up next to Wonga Pigeon and both pooped out a dropping.
Hoop pine and both of the booyongs leaned over. The ebony gave a little gasp. “My beautiful seed! It’s been ground up into bits by that awful Wonga Pigeon!” she sobbed.
“My seed looks ok,” said the sassafras, smiling at Wompoo.
“And mine too,” said the white beech.
“And they get a good start with some bonus fertiliser,” said Topknot with a bow.
The crowd erupted in cheers and boos and lots of talking and rustling and squawking. Wonga Pigeon strutted off into the shadows in the confusion. Flying Fox, Wompoo and Topknot were declared the winners of the competition, and all of the trees wanted to congratulate them, and to ask them lots of questions. The trees gave them more fruits to eat, and asked them which fruits they liked best, and why, and how could they make their fruits more tasty, so that theirs might become the favourite fruits of the three friends. For although all of the trees grew together in harmony in the forest, there was still fierce competition among them when it came to creating the best future for their seeds.
So today, if you go into the rainforest, you will see that many trees hide their seeds in colourful fleshy fruits. And although many animals eat these fruits, only some animals carry the seeds safely, and far away. These include Flying Fox, Wompoo Fruit-Dove and Topknot Pigeon, and their fruit-dove relatives. And after the Ball the trees also discovered that silvereyes do a good job for little seeds; and bowerbirds and currawongs can also help, and figbirds are good at taking seeds over open country. But the trees never again trusted Bush Rat or Land Mullet or Wonga Pigeon, all of whom feed near the ground. And for this reason the trees try to hold onto their fruits, way up in their canopies, until their bat and bird friends can pluck the ripe fruits direct from the branches and carry the seeds away. Only the over-ripe or damaged fruits fall to the ground. Bush Rat still feeds on these fruits and their seeds, for once she starts eating, she finds it hard to stop. So if you look closely at the fallen fruits in the rainforest, you might just see where Bush Rat has been feeding, by the paired bite marks of her long yellow teeth.