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Plant seeds ben­e­fit from hitch­ing a ride with a carnivore

pub­lished 05 March 2017 | mod­i­fied 05 March 2017

Research shows sec­ondary seed dis­per­sal by preda­tor ani­mals is impor­tant for recol­o­niza­tion of plants.

In the mid­dle of Alberta’s boreal for­est, a bird eats a wild chokecherry. Dur­ing his scav­eng­ing, the bird is caught and eaten by a fox. The cherry seed, now inside the belly of the bird within the belly of fox, is trans­ported far away from the tree it came from. Even­tu­ally, the seed is deposited on the ground. After being bro­ken down in the belly of not one but two ani­mals, the seed is ready to ger­mi­nate and become a cherry tree itself. The cir­cle of life at work.

Diploen­do­zoo­chory, or the process of a seed being trans­ported in the gut of mul­ti­ple ani­mals, occurs with many species of plants in habi­tats around the world. First described by Charles Dar­win in 1859, this type of seed dis­per­sal has only been stud­ied a hand­ful of times. And in a world affected by cli­mate change and increas­ing rates of human devel­op­ment, under­stand­ing this process is becom­ing increas­ingly important.

A new study by researchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Alberta’s Depart­ment of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences is the first to com­pre­hen­sively exam­ine exist­ing lit­er­a­ture to iden­tify broader pat­terns and sug­gest ways in which the phe­nom­e­non is impor­tant for plant pop­u­la­tions and seed evo­lu­tion. The study is pub­lished on 23 Feb­ru­ary in the open acces jour­nal Ecos­phere.

secondary seed dispersalInfo­graphic on the eco­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of sec­ondary seed dis­per­sal by car­ni­vores.
Anni Hämäläi­nen et al., 2017. In Ecos­phere. Cre­ative Com­mons license.

Anni Hämäläi­nen, lead inves­ti­ga­tor and post­doc­toral fel­low, explains that predator-​assisted seed dis­per­sal is impor­tant to col­o­nize and recol­o­nize plant life in the wild.

Seed-​carrying preda­tors may have a role in help­ing plants cover a larger area and hence move with the chang­ing climate
Anni Hämäläi­nen, lead author, Depart­ment of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences, Uni­ver­sity of Alberta, Edmon­ton, Alberta, Canada »

Thick-​shelled seeds may ben­e­fit from the wear and tear of pass­ing through the guts of two ani­mals, mak­ing them bet­ter able to ger­mi­nate than if they had passed through the gut of the prey alone,” explains Hämäläi­nen. “It’s even pos­si­ble that some plants have evolved specif­i­cally to take advan­tage of these predator-​specific behaviours.”

Diploen­do­zoo­chory also has broader envi­ron­men­tal impli­ca­tions
Often larger than prey ani­mals, preda­tors cover larger dis­tances with ease. As humans con­tinue to develop and alter wilder­ness, such as by cut­ting down forests or build­ing roads, preda­tors may be the only ani­mals large enough to nav­i­gate across these areas and enable plants to recol­o­nize them.

Cli­mate change will alter where some plants can find suit­able places to grow,” explains Hämäläi­nen. “Seed-​carrying preda­tors may have a role in help­ing plants cover a larger area and hence move with the chang­ing climate.”

These dif­fer­ent fac­tors are like pieces in a puz­zle, explains Hämäläi­nen: to fully under­stand the big pic­ture of how they affect plant pop­u­la­tions, sci­en­tists need to know how all of the pieces fit together.

Our work has high­lighted how inter­est­ing and impor­tant diploen­do­zoo­chory is, and we hope that it will help and encour­age oth­ers to fill some of these gaps in our under­stand­ing,” says Hämäläinen.

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Alberta Sci­ence News, 23.02.2017)

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