Plants hitch rides with box turtles

From Madison, Wis., at a meeting of the Botanical Society of America

In the disappearing ecosystem known as pine rocklands in southern Florida, at least nine plant species find new homes by traveling through a turtle’s gut, researchers say.

Although people have mentioned turtles as seed dispersers, botanists hadn’t studied details of effects in the wild, says Hong Liu of Florida International University in Miami. She and her colleagues wondered whether the substantial turtle population was important to maintaining the pine rocklands. With little soil and lots of rock, this unusual ecosystem stretches from Dade County south into Everglades National Park.

The researchers took eastern box turtles captive for a day and identified seeds in their excrement. The turtles’ favorites included locustberry (Brysonima lucida), which Florida lists as endangered. Another favorite, saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), germinates much more readily if it’s had a turtle ride, the researchers found.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

More Stories from Science News on Ecosystems