Poop-Like Plant Tricks Dung Beetles Into Burying Its Seeds

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but she certainly rewards a liar. Wild cheaters abound in the plant and animal kingdoms, from the tippy-top of the food chain to the very bottom. The newest addition to the rogues gallery is Ceratocaryum argenteum, a South African plant that quite literally looks like crap. 

Scientists found that C. argenteum’s seeds are so convincingly poop-like that dung beetles will make off with them and bury them in the dirt. The large, round seeds not only look like the dung of local antelopes—they also smell like it, which is how they can trick dung beetles into planting them.

Poop is, unsurprisingly, the center of the dung beetle’s universe. Food, drink, a place to raise the kids, and sometimes even home are rolled into one smelly ball. As such, dung beetles can be a little single-minded, which makes them a prime target for tricksters and scammers. Burrowing owls, for example, casually strew balls of dung outside their dens, then gobble up any beetles that come sniffing around.

In a paper published this week in Nature Plants, researchers from the University of South Africa and University of KwaZulu-Natal analyzed the stink emanating from C. argenteum seeds. They found that a number of the seeds' smelly compounds matched those in antelope poop precisely.

To find out if the seeds’ odor actually appealed to dung beetles, the scientists scattered 195 C. argenteum seeds in areas of heavy dung beetle traffic. They set up motion-capture cameras at each site and attached fluorescent threads to each seed to make it easy to spot if a beetle carried it off. Sure enough, within 24 hours, dung beetles had absconded with and buried more than one quarter of the reeking seeds. The stench also seemed to deter animals that might eat the seeds without burying them.

Once buried, the C. argenteum seeds sprout and start a whole new generation of smelly, lying plants. Burial keeps the seeds safe from any chaos on the surface, which is a big deal in the fire-prone shrublands where they make their home.

It’s a pretty neat trick, but how did the plants come up with it? Lead author Jeremy Midgley suspects a combination of dumb luck and chemical evolution.

“I guess that a mutant individual, which had some chemical on the seed coat, attracted the odd beetle and the seed was buried," Midgley said in an interview with Discovery News. "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."

Meanwhile, the beetles who did the heavy lifting in this particular experiment were left looking pretty silly. At least they weren't forced to wear tiny cardboard hats. 

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Health
Watch a Tree Release a Massive "Pollen Bomb" Into the Air
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In case your itchy, watery eyes hadn't already tipped you off, spring is in the air. Some trees release up to a billion pollen grains apiece each year, and instead of turning into baby trees, many of those spores end up in the noses of allergy sufferers. For a visual of just how much pollen is being released into our backyards, check out the video below spotted by Gothamist.

This footage was captured by Millville, New Jersey resident Jennifer Henderson while her husband was clearing away brush with a backhoe. He noticed one tree was blanketed in pollen, and decided to bump into it to see what would happen. The result was an explosion of plant matter dramatic enough to make you sniffle just by looking at it.

"Pollen bombs" occur when the weather starts to warm up after a prolonged winter, prompting trees and grasses to suddenly release a high concentration of pollen in a short time span. Wind, temperature, and humidity levels all determine the air's pollen count for any given day, but allergy season settles down around May.

After determining that your congestion is the result of allergies and not a head cold, there are a few steps you can take to stave off symptoms before they appear. Keep track of your area's pollen report throughout the week, and treat yourself with antihistamines or nasal spray on days when you know it will be particularly bad outside. You can also keep your home a pollen-free zone by closing all the windows and investing in an air purifier. Check out our full list of seasonal allergy-fighting tips here.

[h/t Gothamist]

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Why Some Trees in Norway Are Missing Their Rings
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Dendrochronologists are experts at reading tree rings. They can learn a great deal of information—including past climate in an area and the age of the tree—by taking a tree core sample and reading between the lines (literally).

But as the BBC reports, one climate researcher was stumped when she discovered that many trees in the Norwegian village of Kåfjord were missing their rings. Extreme weather and invasive insects can cause some degree of damage to trees, but not enough to render them ringless.

Claudia Hartl, from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, knew that these trees dated back to 1945, but that alone wasn't enough information. Two other clues that helped Hartl and her colleagues solve the mystery were location and history. During World War II, Nazi soldiers moored the Tirpitz—the largest battleship of Hitler's navy—off the waters of Kåfjord to intercept vessels carrying Allied supplies to the Soviet Union. The Germans released an artificial smoke containing chlorosulphuric acid to conceal the ship's location, and this is believed to be the root of the trees' problem.

Artificial smoke could have damaged the needles of the trees, halting the photosynthesis process and stunting the trees' growth, researchers found. It takes time for the trees to recover, but it is possible. One tree saw no growth at all from 1945 to 1954, but after 30 years its growth had returned to normal. Hartl presented the findings at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna this week [PDF].

"I think it's really interesting that the effects of one engagement are still evident in the forests of northern Norway more than 70 years later,” Hartl told BBC News. She believes her "warfare dendrochronology" will unearth similar findings elsewhere in the world.

[h/t BBC News]

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