Alex Wild

Plant seeds look, smell like poop—fooling dung beetles into planting them

“Fecal mimicry” is not a phrase you hear too often. But for the South African plant Ceratocaryum argenteum, more commonly known as restiads, it’s a survival tactic. The tall grassy plant produces seeds that look and smell nearly identical to animal droppings (pictured in the image above). That likeness helps the plant survive by facilitating a seed-spreading mechanism known as dispersal, according to a study published online today in Nature Plants. Unsuspecting dung beetles come across these pungent pods and mistake them for animal feces, their primary source of food and nesting material. The naïve beetle rolls the imposter dung home and buries it, but by the time the beetle realizes its finding is a dud, the seed has already been effectively dispersed. To witness the trickery in action, researchers scattered 195 seeds throughout “stations” at the De Hoop Nature Reserve in South Africa and monitored the seeds with cameras. Within 24 hours, the dung beetles had rolled nearly half of the seeds out of their original stations, dispersing them throughout the reserve (cameras verified that other small mammals weren’t eating the seeds or influencing dispersal), suggesting that the round, brown, odiferous seeds have evolved to target dung beetles as their gullible transporter. Deception is a well-employed tactic in both the plant and animal kingdoms, but C. argenteum’s mimicry goes above and beyond the call of duty.