Unintentional Gardeners: Animals as Seed Dispersers

The last Saturday in January is National Seed Swap Day, a time when gardeners exchange seeds in preparation for spring, but humans aren’t the only animals in the seed-swap game. From the Amazon river basin to the Australian bush, animals have been spreading seeds around their environments for millions of years.

Published January 24, 2020

Plants are often perceived as passive spectators in the natural world; just a backdrop to the more active lives of animals.

In actuality, many plants have coevolved with animals and take advantage of their most enticing attribute: mobility. Surrounding seeds with tasty fruits is an effective strategy to attract a large variety of animals… which then consume and transport these seeds far away from their origin. For many seeds, passing through an animals digestive system initiates germination by splitting open thick seed coats.

Let’s take a world tour of seed-dispersing animals—after all, they’re found on every continent!

Grey-Headed Flying Fox

flying fox

We’ve got to tip our hat to the grey-headed flying fox, which may play a role in helping Australian ecosystems recover from recent devastating fires.

This large Australian bat is a major seed disperser in and around the forests of southeastern Australia.

A voracious consumer of a variety of fruits and nectar, these large bats are both seed dispersers and pollinators in and around the forests of southeastern Australia. The grey-headed flying fox plays a vital role in the Australian forest ecosystem—they have become inseparably linked, with the forest feeding the bats and the bats propagating the forest!

Green Sea Turtle green sea turtles

The ocean is no stranger to animals spreading seeds, and one of the most prolific oceanic seed dispersers is the green sea turtle.

When they’re juveniles, green sea turtles are carnivores, but by adulthood they’re mostly vegetarian. Their favorite food? Seagrasses. Over millennia, some species of seagrasses have evolved to spread their seeds via animal locomotion, including green sea turtles. Seeds go in with plant matter on one end and come out the other, undigested and ready to germinate in a totally new location!

According to at least one study, green sea turtles transported seagrass seeds over 400 miles!

Pacu

pacu

Yes, fish can also be seed dispersers! Say hello to one of the most famous—the pacu.

This large freshwater fish, a relative of the piranha, is found in a variety of South American rivers throughout the Amazon and Orinoco basins.

When these rivers experience seasonal flooding and jump their banks, fish like the Pacu enter the surrounding flooded forests, where they feast on fruits and nuts. Once the waters recede, the seeds the Pacu has eaten and passed remain, ready to germinate into new trees and plants.

Interested in seeing how seed dispersal works? Check out our Amazon River Forest exhibit. This dynamic exhibit offers a peek into the wet and dry seasons of the Amazon river basin and how different species play a role in perpetuating the biodiversity of this rarefied environment.

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