Dung Beetles and Seed Dispersal

We know that although plants cant move, they have certain means to move from place to place over generations; that is, they have various dispersal mechanisms that help them do this. Some plant seeds are dispersed by wind currents, some by sticking onto animals and humans, as well as by being eaten and deposited by animals to far off locations. Others, simply by the help of gravity. Apart from these methods that we are familiar with from our lower year biology courses, there is another way which is somewhat uncommon- by which a specific plant species successfully disperses its seeds. Ceratocaryum argenteum, known as Cape Restio, is a South African plant that disperses its seeds by deceiving dung beetles, Epirinus flagellatus.


Dung Beetle. Picture taken from Science Magazine

 Ceratocaryum argenteum (pictured) looks a little like reeds or bamboo, but produces large nuts that have a deeply unpleasant smell
Cape Restio Shrubs. Picture taken from Daily Mail

Dung beetles use animal dung as a source of food as well as for their nesting purpose. The seeds of this plant not only look like antelope droppings but they also release gases that have a smell similar to that of the droppings of native antelopes. These beetles get deceived by the ‘fecal mimicry’ of the seeds, roll them to their home, and bury them there just as they do with real herbivorous animal droppings.

Video taken from Nature Video

Only once the beetles have buried the seeds successfully and begin to try eat or lay eggs, they realize that it is of no benefit to them. Although it is of no use for the beetles, the plant however gets its seeds effectively dispersed in this way. This would not have been possible without the characteristics of the seeds pungent smell and the hard covering that protects this big nut from being eaten by small mammals before its successful dispersal.



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