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Seed Dispersal by Rodents: The Case of the Agouti (Dasyprocta punctata)

Agoutis bury seeds to protect them from insect larvae so they can eat them later. Sometimes these seeds take root and grow. When hunters kill agoutis, certain trees decline in numbers because agoutis are not there to plant them.

By attaching tiny radio transmitters to more than 400 palm seeds, Patrick Jansen, scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues found that 85 percent of the seeds were buried in caches by agoutis, common, house cat-sized rodents in tropical lowlands. Agoutis carry seeds around in their mouths and bury them for times when food is scarce.

Radio tracking revealed a surprising finding: when the rodents dig up the seeds, they usually do not eat them, but instead move them to a new site and bury them, often many times. One seed in the study was moved 36 times, traveling a total distance of 749 meters and ending up 280 meters from its starting point. It was ultimately retrieved and eaten by an agouti 209 days after initial dispersal.

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