The ingenuity of plants in a deception profitable for themselves never ceases to amaze researchers, proving that the presence of a brain for the success of a business is not at all necessary.
Mimicry or imitation is common for all plants in general when it comes to attracting pollinators. Basically, flowers give off a pleasant smell for insects and reward them with nectar for the opportunity to reproduce.
But there are also real cunning ones who only use the general rule. For example, orchids do not produce nectar but pretend to be other flowers, and sometimes copy the scent of living things to trick pollinators. And the bee ophis from the same family went even further and depicts a female bee, attracting males.
Much less common is mimicry among seeds. It was this case that caught the attention of biologist Jeremy Midgley and his colleagues at the University of Cape Town.
Researchers studied a South African herb of the species Ceratocaryum argenteum from the Restia family. This species is endemic, that is, it is distributed over a relatively small area, in this case in the De Hoop Nature Reserve.
The dark brown seeds of C. argenteum, about one centimeter in size, are round in shape, just like the droppings of small bontebok antelopes. The seeds mimic feces not only in appearance but also in smell, as they release many of the chemicals inherent in the original.
Before the study, biologists believed that field mice were responsible for the spread of C. argenteum seeds. But in fact, it turned out that this is a matter of the feet of dung beetles.
During the main experiment, the scientists distributed 195 seeds over the area monitored by the cameras. They tied luminescent threads to the seeds to track movements. Within 24 hours, almost half of them were rolled out by beetles of the species Epirinus flagellates, and about a quarter was buried in secluded places.
The authors of the work analyzed the chemical compounds produced by the seeds and found that the species secretes them 300 times more than representatives of other species of the same family.
Scientists note that the similarity of the smell of seeds to feces is not associated with the consumption of this herb by the antelopes, since they are simply not attracted to C. argenteum. That is, this is the result of a great evolutionary work to attract dung beetles for the continuation of the existence of the species.
Usually, mutually beneficial cooperation of species is observed in nature. But in this case, according to the researchers, dung beetles do not receive any reward for their efforts from plants.
They spend a lot of energy moving the blende and often only discover fraud when they try to lay eggs. Scientists believe that to restore justice, it will be difficult for dung beetles to escape from this bondage in the course of evolution since plants have nothing to offer insects in return.
Interestingly, it is not only the seeds that “feel free” to look like excrement to achieve their goals. Creatures of a higher-order – the caterpillars of the Asian sailboat butterfly Ceuta – pretend to be bird droppings so as not to be eaten.
Spiders keep up with them. Several species at once, in particular Cyclosa ginnaga and sidewalk spiders Phrynarachne decipiens, also disguise themselves as bird excrement both to protect themselves from predators and to catch their own prey.
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