Hotel Heliconia – Phil Savoie (2001)

Filmed on location by Philip Savoie and his filming crew at La Selva Biological Field Station in Costa Rica, this documentary provides a great crossection of life weaved around the Heliconia (Heliconiaceae) plant. Plants provide an effective template to convey many interrelated natural history observations. However they rarely become center of attention in wildlife documentaries (but see Plants R Cool 2!).

Unlike documentaries jumping from one continent to the other following a global theme, Hotel Heliconia follows a very detailed local story. In fact, it is so dense that one can absorb it like a field guide before visiting a Neotropical forest. Organisms described in this wonderfully informative documentary covers a sweep of star species that will strike any visitor in the lowland tropical rain forests of the Caribbean. This focal approach has been successfully adopted to many exquisite documentaries including The Queen of Trees (2006).

Hotel Heliconia introduces us to a fabulous range of diverse community of species. Macro photography reveals how mosquito larvae, butterflies, caterpillars, ants, paper wasps, hummingbirds, bats and frogs all utilize Heliconia’s resources. In the meantime, all these animals contribute to the survival of the plant as pollinators, fertilizers and protectors.

Hummingbirds are one of the major themes. Pollination of Heliconia by hummingbirds is a textbook example for vertebrate-mediated pollination biology. Every hummingbird species has their own favorite plant to nest on. Here a few prefer to nest on the Heliconia. Through their trap-lining foraging behavior they help cross pollination among different Heliconia plants. They even lead to formation of genetic hybrids by visiting closely related Heliconia species. Bill length is an important factor for Heliconia pollination. Perhaps the most spectacular observation is the transport of mites from one plant to another inside the nostrils of the hummingbirds. This was studied by Rob Colwell of the University of Connecticut. Pollen is probably the least defended plant tissue and is a great resource for many herbivores.

Heliconia is a kind of plant that requires high light and thus flourishes in canopy gaps and open areas. Its wide leaves are adapted to photosynthesize under intense light. These leaves are a juicy target for many herbivores such as Heliconius butterfly caterpillars or the notorious leafcutter ants. Heliconia nectar is a common currency used to attract its allies. Plants use this strategy to reinforce their defenses. Extrafloral nectaries have evolved in many plant families independently to attract ants. With their sheer numbers, ants are very effective defenders. Their presence alone is enough to deter many insects. Here arguably the largest ant species in the World the bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) come to the defense of Heliconia. These ants have a powerful bite and can sting very painfully. The workers are so big that when they move from one leaf to another the leaves bend under their weight as you can observe from the following video showing a worker patrolling on a piper plant at La Selva Biological Field Station. Curiously, while patrolling she appears to deliberately ignore a planthopper (Hemiptera) feeding on the sap of the plant:

Heliconia defenses can be overwhelmed by the leafcutter ants. However these ants can become an abundant target for the parasitoid phorid flies which deliver a sharp and fast ovipository blow to the heads of the worker ants.

Heliconia provides a nesting ground for tent-building bats, paper wasps, as well as Red-eyed green frogs. The iconic birds of the Neotropics the Toucans also frequently forage around Heliconia plants. These birds are great seed dispersers. Unlike other animals like monkeys, rodents or peccaries who chew and destroy the seeds, toucans regurgitate or defecate many seeds unharmed far away from their sources. Toucans are also opportunistic predators taking anything they can including juvenile birds, frogs, small snakes and lizards.

Hotel Heliconia was screened at the National Museum of Natural History Film and Lecture Series with an introduction by a prominent ecologist and NMNH curator of botany John Kress who were among the many scientific advisors to the film.

 

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