A Traditional Mode of Travel

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Science  30 Jun 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5782, pp. 1848
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5782.1848a

It is well known that many plant species have seeds that are capable of dispersing over long distances, borne on the wind or carried in the gut of migrating birds or on the hide of migrating mammals. But ecologists have long been frustrated by the logistical problems of gathering hard data on such dispersal and of performing useful experiments.

Manzano and Malo have taken advantage of a traditional livestock herding practice in Spain, which involves driving merino sheep from the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain to Extremadura in the southwest. Marked seeds of several common animal-dispersed herbaceous species were pressed onto the fleece of the sheep as they passed through central Spain, and seeds still adhering to the animals were counted at regular intervals on the journey south. Retention patterns varied for different species: After 28 days and 400 km, 5% of Plantago lagopus (plantain) and 47% of Trifolium angustifolium (clover) seeds were still attached to sheep. These are the longest dispersal distances recorded for these species, by two orders of magnitude, and confirm the potential for migrating ungulates to facilitate plant dispersal. — AMS

Front. Ecol. Environ. 4, 244 (2006).

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