Treetop Goats Are Helping Trees Thrive, Ecologists Say

Posted by TF Oren
goats in tree

If you use beauty products that contain argan oil, you have tree-climbing goats to thank.

In southern Morocco, domesticated goats climb to the treetops in search of fresh greens. Herders help facilitate this behavior by pruning tough trees and by helping goat kids learn how to climb. In the fall, the goats spend up to three quarters of their grazing time in the treetops.

The fruit of the argan tree is a favorite treat for tree-climbing goats. They’ll climb to great heights to get a taste of the pulpy fruit that resembles a large green olive.

But it’s only the fruit they’re after. Once they’ve eaten the good stuff and are chewing their cud, they spit out the argan nuts. This disperses clean seeds to new ground as the goats wander. A seed dispersed some distance away from its tree of origin stands a better chance of surviving. Thus, the goat delivery method is ideal.

Spanish ecologists have observed this novel method of seed dispersal in action. It is a variation on something ecologists call endozoochory, where a seed passes through an animals’ digestive system (or two, depending on the animal), and is then dispersed via defecation.

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Goats don’t generally pass large seeds, so the authors suspected that reports of goats dispersing seeds by way of endozoochory weren’t quite correct. Rather, they believed some variation of the mechanism was at play.

They have observed sheep, red deer, and fallow deer spitting out seeds while chewing cud, and now believe the spitting version of endozoochory could be fairly widespread, and possibly a lifeline for certain species of vegetation whose survival depends on it.

The ecologists reported their findings in the Natural History Note in the May issue of “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.” The paper is open access and you can check it out here.

What do you think about these surefooted seed-spitters? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Treetop Goats Are Helping Trees Thrive, Ecologists Say