Goats are surprisingly good climbers. Given the opportunity, they’ll climb just about anything, including each other. So what’s stopping them from climbing a tree, especially if there is something up there they can eat? And so they do. Tree climbing goats are such a fascinating sight, they even have their own calendar. But the story doesn’t end there. The goats find food in the trees, entertaining humans as they go; meanwhile, the trees have a reliable partner in the goats, who inadvertently help disperse the tree’s seeds.
In general, goats don’t need to climb trees to find food. Goats aren’t known to be picky eaters, and there is usually plenty for them to eat at ground level. However, in arid climates where food can become limited, ascending trees to eat foliage and fruits is a matter of survival. This is the case in southwestern Morocco, where goats can be found in the tops of argan trees every autumn gorging on the fruits of this desert tree.
Argan (Argania spinosa) is a relatively short tree with a sprawling canopy and thorny branches. It is the only species in its genus and is endemic to parts of Morocco and neighboring Algeria. The tree is economically important to the area due to the oil-rich seeds found within its bitter fruits. Argan oil has a variety of culinary uses and is also used medicinally and in cosmetics. To get to the oil, goats are often employed in harvesting the fruits. The goats retrieve the fruits from the tops of the trees and consume their fleshy outer layer. The hard, seed-containing pits are expelled, collected, and cracked open to get to the seeds.
This is where a team of researchers from Europe come in. There has been some confusion as to how the pits are expelled, with some reports claiming that they pass through the goats digestive track and are deposited in their manure. This is a common way for the seeds of many other plant species to be dispersed, and is carried out not only by goats and other ruminants, but also by a wide variety of mammals, as well as birds and even reptiles. However, considering the average size of the pits (22 mm long x 15 mm wide), the researchers thought this to be unlikely.
Others reported that the seeds were spat out in the goats’ cud while they ruminated. Goats, like other ruminants, have stomachs composed of multiple compartments, the first of which being the rumen. Partially digested food, known as cud, is sent back into the mouth from the rumen for further chewing and may be spat out or swallowed again. Goats are known to ruminate in the same location that they defecate, which results in confusion as to when and how certain seeds, like those of the argan tree, are deposited.
By feeding various fruits to a group of goats, the researchers were able to test the hypothesis that seeds could be regurgitated and spat from the cud and that this is a viable method of seed dispersal. The researchers reported that larger seeds were more commonly spat out than smaller seeds, but that “almost any seed could be ejected during, mastication, spat from the cud, digested, or defecated.” The viability of spat out seeds was tested, and over 70% of them were found to be viable.
This discovery suggests that seed dispersal via spitting by ruminants could be a common occurrence – possibly far more common than previously considered. The researchers postulate that studies that have only considered seeds dispersed in manure “may have underestimated an important fraction of the total number of dispersed seeds” and that the seeds spat from the cud likely represent different species from those commonly dispersed in dung. In addition, the seeds of some species don’t survive the digestive tract of ruminants, so “spitting from the cud may represent their only, or at least their main, dispersal mechanism.”
This study surrounding the argan trees was followed up by the same group of researchers with a literature review that was published last month. The review looked into all available studies that mentioned seed dispersal via regurgitation by ruminants. While they considered over 1000 papers, only 40 published studies were found to be relevant for the review. From these studies, they determined that the seeds of 48 plant species (representing 21 different families) are dispersed by being spat from a ruminant’s cud, and that most of these plant species are trees and shrubs whose fruits contain large seeds. Also of note is that ruminants across the globe are doing this – representatives from 18 different genera were mentioned in the studies.
The researchers conclude that this is a “neglected” mechanism of seed dispersal. It’s difficult to observe, and in many cases it hasn’t even been considered. Like so many other animals, ruminants can disperse seeds in a variety of ways. Seeds can attach to their fur and be transported wherever they go. They can pass through their digestive track and end up in their dung, potentially far from where they were first consumed. And, as presented here, they can be spat out during rumination. Investigations involving all of these mechanisms and the different plant species involved will allow us to see, in a much clearer way, the role that ruminants play in the dispersal of seeds.