Different plants spread their seeds in different ways

Capuchin
Capuchin

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In the forests of Panama, many plants rely on animals to scatter their seeds. Monkeys climb up trees and pick the fruit right off the plant. Rats and mice pick up small seeds and carry them off. Large fruits, too big for monkeys or mice, fall to the ground where larger mammals like tapirs and peccaries may scatter or bury them.

Noelle has found that the animals do not change roles. If monkeys, for example, are hunted out of an area, no other animals will spread the seeds the monkeys used to handle. The fruit rots on the tree, or falls to the ground untouched. The plant has no way to spread its seeds to new areas. Thus, hunting affects not only animal populations, but plant populations, too.

Disease may help spur plant diversity

Normally we think of disease only as being destructive. But Noelle thinks it may play a positive role in keeping a forest diverse.

In another line of study, Noelle looks at how disease and insects may keep certain plants from taking over an area. Some diseases attack only a few species of plants. So, as one type of tree becomes common, its disease will have an “easier” time spreading. (Insect infestations work the same way.) The tree population dies back somewhat, leaving more space, sunlight and soil for other species of plants. This increases the variety of plant life in the forest.

Salaca Leaf
Leaf spots on a palm. Diseases may hold the population of common plants in check, allowing other plants a chance to grow.

Photo courtesy of Noelle Beckman