Seeds of a South African plant look and smell just like antelope poop - the better to attract the attention of beetles.
The seeds, produced by the plant Ceratocaryum argenteum, fool dung beetles, which roll the seeds away and bury them, later resulting in a new plant. T The discovery, published in the journal Nature Plants, adds to the growing body of evidence that plants can be clever, even without a brain.
Photos: Animals That Look Like Poop
The study is also the first to confirm that such an unusual form of deception occurs to benefit plant seed dispersal. As for how the unusual phenomenon first emerged, author Jeremy Midgley of the University of Cape Town told Discovery News, "I guess that a mutant individual, which had some chemical on the seed coat, attracted the odd beetle and the seed was buried. This plant then did very well because fewer seeds were discovered and eaten by small mammals, and that fires damaged fewer of the buried seeds."
Midgley and his team analyzed the volatile chemicals given off by the seeds, as well as by dung from elands and bonteboks (two types of antelopes from the region). Sure enough, the smell-related chemicals in the seeds were very similar to those emitted from the antelope poop.
The deception is a win-win for the plant, since the poor dung beetles get no reward for helping the plant increase its numbers. Often deception between insects and plants does lead to a reward.
For example, some flowers lure bees in because the bee thinks it is going to mate with another bee. At least the deceived animal may come out with some nutrients from the plant. But dung beetles get zilch from the stinky seeds. So the researchers were surprised by the findings.
Grab-and-Go Beetle Hoards Poo and Gallops
"Dung beetles have great olfactory senses, so they may not be that easy to fool," Midgley said.
Perhaps the dung beetles even help fertilize the seeds, by burying them near some of their actual collected poop? Midgley thinks not because, he said, "the beetles are quite small and roll one dung pellet at a time and tend to bury them singly. Also, seeds only germinate after fire, and by then any dung would have dissolved."
The overall system is brilliant, though, and ultimately benefits all. The antelopes feast on plants. These antelopes create poop that the dung beetles eat. The beetles, in turn, help produce more plants.