Elephants Contribute to Far-Reaching Seed Distribution

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Elephants Contribute to Far-Reaching Seed Distribution

Weighing in between 2.5 and 7 tons, the African elephant holds the record for being the largest land animal on Earth. Now these gentle giants may have just set a new record for carrying seeds farther than any other terrestrial creature: up to 65 kilometers.

Katherine Bunney, a researcher who was a graduate student in ecology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa at the time of the study, used elephant dung to see just how far elephants could transport seeds. At a sanctuary near Kruger National Park in South Africa, Bunney fed honeydew melon to elephants in order to track the seeds they consumed.

She first studied how long seeds could stay inside elephants and discovered that they defecate most of the seeds between 33 and 96 hours, giving the elephants plenty of time to travel a long distance. Bunney and her team reported in Biotropica that for any fruit, an elephant could move half the seeds 2.5 kilometers and one percent of the seeds would move farther than 20 kilometers.

For animals traveling longer distances in search of a mate or water, as is the case in Namibia, the seed could travel up to 65 kilometers. This is much further than seeds transported by Asian forest elephants, who move seeds only about five or six kilometers.

Though the world record for seed dispersal likely still goes to a bird, elephants take the prize on the savanna. They can also consume larger fruits than other animals, making them the perfect vehicle for spreading diverse plant life like seeds of the sausage tree and baobabs.

Being encapsulated in dung acts as both protection and a source of nourishment for seeds, keeping them away from beetles and providing much-needed nutrients for the seeds to grow. Elephants play a key role in maintaining the diversity of plant life on the savanna and researchers like Bunney point to this as another reason to protect the animals.

In South Africa, elephants are thriving. But other populations are still under the threat of being poached for ivory. If the elephants are lost, the savanna would lose its best seed transporter and the entire environment would suffer, making it critical that these amazing creatures are protected.

Top photo by Dion Hinchcliffe, CC BY-SA 2.0

Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.