Now it turns out it might not just be the trip through the air that's important, but also the inches-long trip through the bird.
An ant carries off a wild chili pepper seed.
Credit: Tomás Carlo
Seeds from a wild chili pepper plant found in South America, after being eaten and passed through the digestive tract of small-billed Elaenias, emerge with less of the odor that attracts seed-eating ants, and carrying fewer pathogens able to kill the seed.
Passing through bird guts increased seed survival 370 percent, regardless of how far the seeds were dispersed from its parent, according to Evan Fricke, a UW doctoral student in biology and lead author of a paper appearing online June 21 in Ecology Letters.
"Ecologists have not been considering gut processing as a factor when they find seeds having less predation or infection away from parent plants, but they should," Fricke said. "If similar mechanisms are happening with other species, then ecologists have been missing some major benefits of seed dispersal mutualism between plants and animals."The assumption has been that the better success was all a matter of distance. And in some cases it is. There have been previous experiments, for example, where seeds from a single plant were planted right by the plant and others at some distance away – no passing through an animal gut, just planted by hand. The seeds farther away survived better.
The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society, and logistical support in Bolivia was provided by Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The other UW co-authors are Melissa Simon, Karen Reagan, Jeffrey Riffell and Joshua Tewksbury, who remains a UW faculty member although he is now with the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland. The other co-authors are Douglas Levey with the National Science Foundation and Tomás Carlo, who did postdoctoral research at the UW and is now at Pennsylvania State University.
For more information: Fricke, is working in the Mariana Islands and can be reached via email, email@example.com
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