20 July 2012
"Thousands of years ago massive elephantlike creatures wandered the landscape, gobbling up then defecating fruit. In the process, they may have planted the seeds for primordial forests. But with these creatures long extinct, ecologists have been left with a puzzle: If these trees are still with us, what—if anything—disperses these seeds to create today's woodlands?
The answer—at least for one type of forest—may lie in the criminal antics of a cunning rodent. A group of scientists working with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and Wageningen University in the Netherlands report their hypothesis in today's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The rodent in question is the agouti—a house cat–size critter that resembles a leggy, tailless squirrel. Although an agouti cannot devour large tropical fruits the way an ancient mammoth might have, it consumes the seeds, collecting and burying some to store as snacks for later.
Traditionally, the agouti has been described as a seed predator. Studies monitoring their caches suggest that it doesn't take long for an agouti to come and collect. However, the research published today suggests that caching a fallen seed is just the beginning of a seed-stealing saga that carries each over long distances."
Read the rest of the story - and see a video of the thieving rodents in action - on the Scientific American website.