Rooted to the spot? Why waterbirds are essential for our ecosystems

It’s no scientific secret that plants rely on the movement of seeds as many are literally ‘rooted to the spot’ and so can’t move as adults. Yet plants – the key base of so many food chains – need to move around just as much as animals do as their environment changes.

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Speaking at the annual meeting of the British Ecological Society in Liverpool this week, Professor David Wilkinson from the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences and Liverpool John Moores University is part of an international team revisiting a Darwinian obsession; the importance of birds for moving seeds around.

A highlight of this new work shows, for the first time in recorded science, that live moss can pass through the gut of a duck and still grow when it comes out from the other end.

Biologists usually assume that most moss moves about as very tiny ‘spores’ – this research shows an additional way for moss to move around. The new study has also looked at over 1000 seeds from waterbird droppings to see which species are being transported.

As Professor Wilkinson explained at the annual meeting of the British Ecological Society: “Birds are much more important in the dispersal of a very large number of plant species than has been suggested in the past.

“In the 19th century Charles Darwin was very interested in the role of birds in seed dispersal and carried out a range of pioneering simple experiments on the topic – as he realised that with the aid of birds plants can fly! However since Darwin, research on the dispersal of seeds by animals has been focused on plants with fleshy fruits, and very little data has been collected on the role of birds in the transport of other types of seeds in Britain.

“Currently most attempts to predict how plants move around – for example in response to changing climate – assumes that only a few plant species make much use of birds. This new research is helping to show that we have greatly understated the important of birds to the movement of many plant seeds. “

The other scientists involved in this work were Ádám Lovas-Kiss, a PhD student from Hungary, and Professor Andy Green from Spain.