Robbing Rodents Save Tropical Plant
by Krystnell A. Storr
Call it the Robin Hood of rodents. When the cat-sized agouti comes across seeds buried by its comrades, it digs them up and hides them in a new place. The robberies are selfish, to be sure, but a new study reveals that they may be saving a tropical tree from extinction.
The seeds of Panama’s black palm tree (Astrocaryum standleyanum) are a mouthful. They are about the size of a cherry and are located in fleshy fruit at the top of the plant, where only an animal the size of an elephant should be able to reach them. In the past, that wasn’t a problem. More than 10,000 years ago, elephant-like animals known as gomphotheres roamed the region, swallowing the fruit whole and then pooping out the seeds, which sprouted into new palms. When hunting killed off the creatures thousands of years ago, the black palm should have gone with them. And yet the plant thrives.
Scientists had suspected that the agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) might be playing a role. When the black palm’s fruit falls to the ground, these large rodents grab the seeds and bury them as a backup food source. If the animals eventually eat the seeds, they don’t grow into new trees. But if they forget about them, a black palm may sprout. Still, it was unclear whether the agoutis were distributing the seeds widely enough to keep the trees flourishing…
(read more: Science NOW) (photo: Christian Ziegler)