Ecology of Hyperion’s Tesla trees



Named after the Old Earth inventor Nicola Tesla and his infamous Tesla coil, the Tesla trees are plantiform dominant species in the flame forest of Hyperion. They are characterized by their unique ability to perform electrical discharges in certain seasons, thus causing forest fires of gargantuan proportions. The whole ecosystem of the flame forests is shaped and adapted to this seasonality. The present paper summarizes the biology of Tesla trees, the molecular mechanism of electric discharge, and the ecological significance of this process.

Early descriptions

The flame forests are situated on the Aquila continent of Hyperion, an earthlike outback planet. Most of the early information on this unique ecosystem is derived from the journals of father Paul Dure and father Lenart Hoyt, prominent catholic priests who successfully crossed them. According to these early accounts, the flame forests consist of several plantiform species, including the bestos plants, Prometheus trees, phoenix shrubs, firewhips, and most notably, the dominating Tesla trees. According to these descriptions, the Tesla trees are approximately 100 meters tall organisms with an onion-shaped bulb on the top, covered with emerging leafy branches. Although half the size of Prometheus trees, the Tesla trees shape the whole ecosystem by their unique ability to produce electrical discharges for approximately three Hyperion months, thus causing enormous forest fires and making the flame forests impossible to cross. During their inactive season, the Tesla trees were suggested to accumulate an electric charge, releasing it occasionally on a smaller scale.

Although these unique features established Tesla trees as highly significant to exobiology, research on them was mostly prevented by the extreme danger of the electric storms and fires, not infrequent even during the inactive season. The early theories claimed that Tesla trees accumulate electric charges from the atmosphere and then release them during the active season. These theories, however, did not explain either the exact mechanism or the biological function of this process.

Species diversity and anatomy

Currently, there are three recognized Tesla tree species. The most common and dominant in the flame forests is the high voltage Tesla tree ([Hyp] Fulgurus arboreus Dure), reaching 100 meters of height. It was depicted in the cover art of the Hyperion novel by Gary Ruddell. It also has the highest similarity to common Earth trees, with a trunk, covered with spikes, topped by a globular, highly branched bulb. Much rarer are the low voltage Tesla trees ([Hyp] Fulgurus minor Dure). They are much smaller, reaching up to 10-15 meters, with a larger bulb. As their name suggests, the low voltage Tesla trees produce much weaker electric discharges, besides being smaller and according to the widely accepted theory are evolutionary older. Finally, the ultra-high voltage Tesla trees ([Hyp] Fulgurus infernalis Hoyt), being also the most dangerous, are the tallest, up to 150 meters, and the rarest of all. Unlike the widely spread high voltage Tesla trees, they grow in small groups and form wide deserted areas around them where no other lifeforms exist.

Figure 1. Species diversity in the flames forests during the vegetative season, based on original descriptions and artists’ representations. A – bestos plant; B – high voltage Tesla tree with B1 – lightning bulb during the active season; C – low voltage Tesla tree; D – fire whip; E – ultra-high voltage Tesla tree; F – phoenix shrub.

All three species share common anatomical features. Much like Old Earth trees, they have an extensive root system to extract minerals from the soil, a woody stem to transport organic compounds in both directions, and a highly branched top with photosynthetic leaves. Unlike common Old Earth plants, the color of leaves is mostly blue because of the different light spectrum absorbed. Their most unique feature is the recently named lightning bulb, the electric discharge producing organ, which is discussed below.

Molecular mechanism of electric discharge

The early theories claimed, that Tesla trees do absorb static electricity from the atmosphere and release it during certain atmospheric conditions, which, however, was disapproved in later studies. Recently, a second theory, regarding the lightning bulbs as organs, very similar to what the electric eel uses to produce electricity was confirmed after a detailed study on several dead Tesla trees. The bulb consists of numerous independent structures of stacked cells, called plantiform electrocytes, consisting of extensive intracellular membrane systems. Positively and negatively charged ions are continuously separated on both sides of the membranes by energy-dependent transporters, thus creating polarization and accumulation of the electric potential. Then, during the active season, pseudoneurons provide the signal for electric discharge, opening other channels and an immediate influx of ions. Currently, no trustful measurements were done, but it was speculated that the largest ultra-high-voltage Tesla trees could produce several million output volts.

As clearly seen, the process of charge separation is highly demanding in terms of energy. Most interestingly, it all comes from the photosynthetic activity of the tree. During the inactive season, the core of the bulb is serving as a storage of reserve carbohydrates, accumulated by photosynthetic carbon fixation. Then, during the active season, the oxidation of these carbohydrates ensures ATP production for ion transport and charge accumulation. The full charge of the bulb does not require more than several hours and is done continuously during the active season.

The other high energy demanding metabolic feature of Tesla trees is the accumulation and secretion of fireproof, non-conducting waxy substances that cover the stem. Until now, it was defined as a complex mixture of organic polymer, wax, and aluminum compounds. Some early efforts to collect this substance were made in the past but discontinued due to the high danger for the workers.

The biological significance of the electric discharge

As stated above, the theory that Tesla trees produced electricity has anything to do with energy accumulation was fully disapproved. Currently, the sole function of this process was agreed to be nitrogen fixation, much more like the non-biological nitrogen fixation, occurring on Old Earth by lightning. Briefly, the high energy released oxidize molecular nitrogen to various nitric oxides, further deposited in the form of nitrates in the soil. Similar to Old Earth, the atmosphere of Hyperion is rich in nitrogen, which is also an essential element of proteins and nucleic acids but is not accessible to lifeforms. As the flame forests evolved in an area where biological nitrogen fixation does not occur, Tesla trees are essential for the accumulation of nitrates and the overall nitrogen cycle of the ecosystem. All other plantiforms around them evolved in a way to take advantage of the nitrate-rich soil and adjust their lifecycles to the periods of Tesla trees activity. They either secrete fire proof substances like the bestos plants or have a fire-related lifecycle like the phoenix shrubs. The latter, although completely burnt during the period of activity, requires forest fires for their seeds to germinate. Similar adaptation of plants was observed on Old Earth in areas with frequent wildfires in summer.

Another aspect of the Tesla trees activity is the great amount of ozone production. Generally, due to ozone toxicity, the flame forests are a very hostile area for other lifeforms, but it was also suggested that Tesla trees contribute to the UV impermeable ozone layer of the whole planet, thus making it livable at all.

Seasonality in the flame forests

As clearly defined, Tesla trees largely shaped not only the flame forests as an ecosystem but also the whole wildlife on Hyperion. The seasonality of electric storms, caused by them is essential to the biome. The three months of Tesla tree activity are characterized by extensive wildfires that mostly seem to eradicate the other plantiforms. The Prometheus trees ([Hyp] Arbomirabilis promethei Dure) seem to be the least affected, with leaves situated high above the Tesla trees and highly fireproof trunks. Bestos plants ([Hyp] Hoytia loricatorum Dure) do fall into a period of cryptobiosis, specifically called ignibiosis, when all metabolic processes stop. The phoenix shrubs ([Hyp] Frutex phoenix Dure) and the fire whips ([Hyp] Flagellum ignis Dure) seem to burn completely, leaving only fireproof seeds. During this period the soil is highly enriched in nitrates and many minerals are layered back in it. All animaliforms migrate out of the flames forests during this period.

Shortly after the activity of Tesla trees diminishes a period of life flourishing starts, greatly induced by substances, released during the burning and the mineral-enriched soil. In several months-long periods bestos plants forms new leaves and phoenix shrubs and fire whips seeds germinate and grow intensively. The highly coordinated blossom of all plantiform species leads to a massive migration of pollinating insects and numerous insectivores into the flame forests. At the end of this period, the Tesla trees are reactivated and complete the seasonality. It was also hypothesized, that the seasonal migration of animaliforms does export organic nitrogen from the nitrate-rich flame forests to other, nitrate-poor regions in Hyperion, thus contributing to the overall wildlife flourishing on the planet.


Dan Simmons. 1989. Hyperion. Doubleday publishing. ISBN 0-385-24949-7.

One Reply to “Ecology of Hyperion’s Tesla trees”

  1. Мариела says:

    Много интересно! Харесва ми. Малки затруднение има само с транспорта.Иначе може да си направим ел. генератори:))

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