5 Animals that Have an Unusual Seed Dispersal Role

If there’s one thing you may still remember from your high school biology class, it may be the ways that plant disperse their seeds. Whether that’s through wind, water, or by tagging along to an animal, seed dispersal is crucial to the survival of plants. With animals, researchers have uncovered a number of unusual suspects that play a very important role in dispersing the seeds of native plant species. We aren’t talking about birds or bees. Here are five animals that you wouldn’t think of first-hand when it comes to seed dispersal.

Seed Dispersal Animals Infographic

Cougars

It is very unusual to think of cougars as effective seed dispersing agents because they are hyper-carnivorous apex predators (aka the top of the food chain). Well, researchers found that cougars in Argentina indirectly help the seed dispersal process [1]. They do this by consuming preys like Eared Doves, which feed on seeds from the ground. When the cougars eat the doves, the seeds go along with them. The dispersal happens as the cougar roams the jungle and drops a deuce here and there. Cougars make very good dispersing animals because they travel long distances. According to the study, cougars could plant around 94,000 seeds in a year!

Elephants

Might not come as huge of a surprise since elephants are one of the largest frugivores (fruit eaters) on the planet but as researchers found in Congo, elephants play an important role in dispersing the seeds of native plants across long distances. Researchers were able to get to such conclusions by collecting and analyzing elephant dung (those poor souls). They found that seeds were being disseminated by the Congo forest elephants across distances of 24 – 57 kilometers [2]. Of the 855 Congo elephant dungs they analyzed, 94% contained seeds with those seeds coming from 73 different tree species.

Ants

They are deceivingly strong for their size. Did you know that ants could support up to 5,000 times their own body weight? [3] With such strength, carrying seeds is a piece of cake for them. There is even a term for this. Myrmecochory is the term used to define seed dispersal by ants. It is considered one of most important mutualistic relationships in nature. The process starts when the foraging ants take the seeds back to their colonies. Once there, the ants start to eat the elaisome (soft fleshy structure attached to the seed).The elaisome is beneficial for ants because it is packed with proteins and lipids. When the ants are done, they discard the seed in a stable nutrient-rich area where the seeds can germinate. Sounds like a win-win for both.

Fishes

Yes, some plants rely on fish to help disseminate the seeds. Researchers went to the Brazilian region of Patanal where they came across a fish specie called Pacu. Just like their relatives the piranhas, Pacus have sharp teeth that allow them to munch away at fruits. During flood season, fruits fall into the flood water and get consumed by the Pacus. As you may guess, the seeds go along with them and are eventually defecated. Researchers found that the tucum palm appear to rely on Pacus as the main seed dispersers [4]. Since the flood water can go deep inland, the fishes form a very effective way for tropical plants to disperse seeds across long distances.

Lizards

Last but not least, researchers in New Zealand found that lizards play a role in dispersing the seeds of native berry species. Although not every seed consumed by the lizards survived, those that did were able to germinate as a result of the lizard behaviors. One of the common behaviors that the researchers observed was of the lizards defecating in small rocky crevices [5]. Doing so gave the seeds a better chance of surviving since the rocky crevice provided suitable conditions for the seeds to germinate.

Well, there you have it. Dung, poop, feces, manure, whatever you like to call it, play an important role in the seed dispersal process. A few of the animals we mentioned above are becoming or are already endangered species. We have an important part to play to ensure the survival of those species, which in turn, helps the ecosystem in ways we haven’t always imagined before.

Article Sources
[1] http://www.nature.com/articles/srep19647
[2] http://faculty.washington.edu/…%20Elephant%20seed%20dispersal.pdf
[3] http://www.jbiomech.com/article/S0021-9290(13)00545-9/abstract
[4] http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080205/full/news.2008.555.html
[5] http://www.moasark.co.nz/2015/02/03/lizards-berries-seed-dispersal/