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Tree-Climbing, Seed-Spitting Goats Help Trees Grow in New Places

We’ve never seen symbiosis quite like this before. Scientists say goats’ Huck Finn-like propensity for climbing trees and spitting may actually benefit the trees they visit. The researchers published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

These animals will do just about anything to fulfill a craving. When there’s nothing available at ground level, domesticated Moroccan goats (Capra hircus) gladly clamber 30 feet into the uppermost branches of an argan tree (Argania spinosa) to get at its pulpy fruit.

The yellow fruit of the argan tree
Daniel*D, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Rather than shouting at their goats to get down, herders encourage this wacky behavior, carrying goat kids to lower branches and teaching them how to climb. In the dry months of autumn, a herd may spend up to 74 percent of its foraging time in the treetops.

Goats grazing in an argan tree.
Dromedar61, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The argan tree has long been important in its native region as a source of wood and a barrier against the Sahara’s creeping sands. Over the last few decades it’s also become something of a money-spinner, as more and more beauty products incorporate the honey-colored oil from its seeds.

That’s just fine with the goats. More trees mean more fruit for them, and it’s not the hard, stone-like seeds that they’re after. Researchers wondered how this highly unusual arrangement worked out for the trees. Many tree species depend on animals to disperse their seeds. It’s a trade: The animal gets to eat fruit, so long as it travels a little distance away before digesting it and pooping out the seeds.

But argan seeds are on the larger side, and researchers didn’t think goats would particularly enjoy trying to poop them out. To get a closer look, they fed domesticated goats six types of fruit. Then things got extra-glamorous, as they watched and waited for the goats to extrude the seeds.

And extrude they did—just not from the end you might expect. Rather than digesting and passing the whole fruit, the goats chewed it, swallowed it, digested it partially, then regurgitated it, chewed it again, and spit out the seeds.

The researchers collected those seeds and planted them, with great success. The majority of seeds had survived their harrowing journey through the front end of a goat and began to sprout.

This dispersal-via-spitting represents a previously unknown tree reproduction strategy. Goats are far from the only animals that chew their cud or spit it back out. This could be big.

“If spitting viable seeds from the cud is widespread among ruminants,” the authors note, “its ecological relevance could be important.”

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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