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Ecology

Indonesia's peatswamp forests are home to a large variety of plant and animal species. Huge emergent trees, reaching a height of up to 70 meters alternate with palms, strangling climbers and dense undergrowth vegetation. Black water rivers slowly seek their way through this endless jungle. Together, these habitats form the impenetrable territories of a great variety of wildlife species.

A typical peatswamp forest consists of a number of distinct vegetation types. Heading from a river towards the centre of the peat dome there is a continuous change in species composition and forest structure. The rivers themselves are dominated by floating weeds and spiny screw palms that can completely obstruct rivers, making navigation hard or even impossible. Palms and a high diversity of large trees like Terentang, Pulai and Meranti dominate the direct vicinity of the river. Diversity decreases markedly as one heads towards deeper peat deposits near the centre of the peat dome. A typical peat swamp species is Ramin, a valuable commercial tree species. Only relativity few species are resistant to the low nutrient availability and (almost) constant water logging in this section of the forest. Three growth is strongly inhibited as well. In some regions trees do not exceed a height of 10-15 metres.

Plants evolved a number of strategies to cope with low nutrient availability. To prevent loss of nutrients to herbivorous animals, many peatswamp forest species form toxic compounds and strong protective tissues in fruits, leaves, seeds and other parts. Many trees and palms developed a symbiotic relationship with ants. The ants receive photosynthetic products which are released from cells in hollow branches. The ants in turn provide the plants with crucial nutrients as they defecate and die in these cavities. Carnivorous plants have also evolved, such as the pitcher plant Nephentes, which drowns insects  caught in its pitcher shaped leaves as another way to acquire nutrients.

The numerous adaptations that plants evolved to cope with extensive periods of flooding add to the unique appearance of the peatswamp forest. Trees survive in waterlogged periods through formation of pneumatophores and aerial roots. Seeds do generally only germinate on small micro-elevations such as fallen logs, leading to a dynamic pattern of seedling recruitment.

The level of endemism in peatswamp forests is comparatively low as the ecosystem originated in historic rather than prehistoric times. Nonetheless Indonesia's peatlands are of high importance for future survival of a number of rare and threatened species. The small populations of elusive species such as White-winged Duck, Storm's Stork and False Gavial are largely restricted to the peatswamp forest ecosystem. Other species, such as Sumatran tiger and Sumatran rhinoceros are more widely distributed but have become rare throughout their range. Indonesia's peatlands are of particular importance for the survival of remaining Orang utan populations. A significant proportion of the world population survives in central Kalimantan's last peatswamp forests.

 

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