The Seek for the Seed Bandit

Zamia pseudoparasitica is a paradox packaged right into a Panamanian plant. Its sticky yellow seeds are absolute chonksters, every concerning the dimension of a Sour Patch Kid—completely designed, it might appear, to pop off the plant and drop straight into the soil. And but, that’s precisely the destiny the plant doesn’t wish to befall its progeny. The actual property the crops search is within the cloud-forest cover, some 25 to 70 ft off the bottom. Among the world’s recognized gymnosperms, a bunch of greater than 1,000 varieties of flowerless crops, pseudoparasitica is the one species that refuses to root correctly in soil. It prefers as a substitute to develop on high of different crops, draping itself throughout tree branches, or nestling into the crooks of trunks at four-story-building top, its roots dangling like dreadlocks. Knobby cones and frondlike leaves give it the look of a stunted palm uncannily “growing in a tree,” says Lilisbeth Rodríguez Castro of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. But for years, scientists couldn’t clarify how pseudoparasitica was nabbing its penthouse perch—or who or what may be serving to it alongside.

The stakes for the seeds are excessive. Should they fall to the forest ground, “they basically have no future,” says Michael Calonje, a Zamia knowledgeable on the Montgomery Botanical Center, in Florida. But seeds don’t are likely to do a lot moseying about on their very own, particularly ones this chubby. The responsible occasion can’t be wind: The seeds are far too heavy to be simply buffeted about. That means “something else, something big, should be responsible,” says Claudio Monteza, of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, in Germany—maybe a winged or tree-climbing animal confederate that snacks on the seeds and stashes them, or scatters them as scat. Only, nobody had ever caught a possible seed chauffeur within the act.

A few years in the past, Monteza, Rodríguez Castro, and their colleagues determined to vary that by getting on the crops’ stage. In October 2019, the workforce situated three cone-laden pseudoparasitica specimens in forests throughout western Panama, and match the branches of close by bushes with digital camera traps. Over the subsequent 4 or so months, the units captured 271 days’ price of pictures, the ultimate pictures taken in March 2020, proper earlier than the COVID-19 pandemic despatched the nation into obligatory quarantine.

Then the seek for the seed bandit started. Monteza, the workforce’s resident camera-trap knowledgeable, analyzed hundreds of photographs. He remembers questioning whether or not he’d see a bat or a toucan, two creatures that had been posited as pseudoparasitica-seed dispersers. But neither ever appeared on movie—simply seven completely flightless mammals. One was a dwarf squirrel, just a few inches in size; two had been opossums recognized to nosh on bugs and fruit; one other was a tamandua, a sort of anteater with a vestlike patch of black fur. Also noticed was a white-faced capuchin monkey, a reputed seed-pooper, and two similar-looking cousins of raccoons—a kinkajou and a northern olingo, each limber, springy, and sharp-clawed.

Round considered one of elimination was straightforward. Three of the candidates—the dwarf squirrel, the tamandua, and the Robinson’s mouse opossum—made mere cameos, flashing throughout the display with out interacting with the pseudoparasitica cones. Of the remaining 4, Monteza spied one character who appeared like an apparent suspect: the capuchin, a species that’s been documented nibbling on different forest seeds, then redistributing them by its different finish. “As soon as I saw the first photo, I was like, Yes, that makes total sense,” he advised me. But the footage saved rolling, and he rapidly noticed that the capuchin cared … in no way for Zamia pseudoparasitica. It inspected the cone briefly, misplaced curiosity, then peaced out. “It was just one individual, doing nothing,” Monteza stated. “I was like, You are disappointing me.” The Central American woolly opossum and the kinkajou, too, had been a bit blasé. Both prodded the cone, flicked their tongues round its base—and left with out lifting any seeds.

And then there was one: the northern olingo, a nocturnal, stern-faced tree-climber recognized for its intense yen for fruit. It blew into Monteza’s knowledge set and out of the blue, spectacularly, started implicating itself. The workforce’s traps, he realized, had captured dozens of cases of olingos patronizing the crops in any respect three examine websites. Unlike the opposite creatures, who confirmed little curiosity within the cones, the olingos strutted up as if greeting previous associates, and diligently sniffed, rubbed, nibbled, and poked. Early in Panama’s dry season, when the cones had been nonetheless younger and sealed shut, the animals appeared to be scouting their prospects, yanking unsuccessfully on the seeds earlier than flitting away, as if “waiting for those suckers to ripen,” says Roland Kays, an olingo knowledgeable at North Carolina State University who watched the workforce’s footage. In January, the cones started to crack, permitting the olingos to excavate the now-mature, rank-smelling seeds with their tooth and claws. They stuffed their winnings into their mouth, two or 4 and even eight at a time, and leaped away into the darkish.

Credit: Courtesy of Claudio Monteza, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Clearly, the olingos seemed to be the guiltiest members of the camera-trap lineup—“they were the only ones that came back repeatedly, the only ones seen going in and taking seeds out,” says Kristin Saltonstall, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, who helped supervise the workforce’s work. The olingo’s culpability “seems pretty solid to me,” says Calonje, who wasn’t concerned within the examine.

But nobody is sort of able to name the case closed. The olingos captured on movie didn’t appear to be instantly consuming the seeds they pilfered—they simply jammed them into their cheeks like hamsters and ran. “We don’t know where the olingo goes next,” says Ann Marie Gawel, a seed-dispersal researcher at Iowa State University who wasn’t concerned with the STRI undertaking. Maybe the seeds get swallowed entire, then serendipitously pooped out to germinate within the bushes. Or perhaps they’re chewed up and completely destroyed, making the olingo a predator, fairly than a reproductive ally in arms. Even if the seeds survive the sojourn, that doesn’t imply olingos get to take all of the credit score; different animals should be concerned. (During the examine, a researcher on the forest ground managed to snap a non-trap picture of a yellow-eared toucanet harvesting a pseudoparasitica seed—however it appeared to destroy its prize shortly thereafter.)

To actually clinch the story, Rodríguez Castro advised me, “we would have to track the animal and track the seeds,” perhaps with some type of collar for the olingo, and luminescent paint for the plant. It additionally wouldn’t harm, Gawel says, to sift by some olingo scat, to see if any gulped-down seeds emerge out the opposite finish.

For now, Monteza is eager on one other rationalization that doesn’t essentially require a visit by a digestive tract. Perhaps the olingos are absentmindedly caching seeds in tree nooks and crannies; those the animals neglect to gather then get the prospect to develop. The olingos, in any case, weren’t feasting on the cones at their supply, however amassing facefuls and skedaddling, as if scared they’d be detained and frisked. If that’s the case, Kays, the olingo knowledgeable, wouldn’t be stunned. Olingos should share their habitat with their larger, buffer kinkajou cousins, which can typically bully smaller mammals out of their meals. Hastily hoarding meals for later may be olingos’ finest guess at outsmarting their rivals. Kays additionally notes {that a} collect-and-hide seed-dispersal technique may be extra smart than a feces-based one, contemplating the place a variety of olingo waste finally ends up. “I’ve sat under them, while they do that,” he advised me, referring to the act of defecating. The scat, like seeds, can’t defy gravity: “It lands on my head.”

I requested Kays, who has respectfully chased many northern olingos by the tropics, if “pseudoparasitica-seed disperser” may be a title befitting of the species and its antics. “Who the hell knows,” he stated. (Though he does discover the STRI workforce’s knowledge compelling.) “We don’t know much about what olingos do.” But ought to the dynamics of this duo be cemented sooner or later, it’ll be a neat narrative—the teaming-up of a “rare animal and a rare plant,” Saltonstall says. The excellent companions in arboreal crime.

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