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Only a small fraction of the thousands of seed disperser species and tens of thousands of animal-dispersed plant species have been studieddirectly. Many seed disperser species are extinct or so rare that they can’t be studied at all.

The answer is seed dispersal. Plants have evolved many strategies for spreading their seeds away from the parent plant. Some produce seedlings that float on the wind. Others have fruits that actually explode, ejecting their seeds.

Animals have been dispersing seeds for millions of years, but the relationships between plants and their seed dispersers have changed dramatically in our modern era.

And more than half of all plants rely on wildlife to disperse their seeds. This typically happens when animals eat fruits from plants or carry away their nuts, then excrete or drop the seeds somewhere else. In tropical rainforests, animals disperse the seeds of up to 90% of tree species.

Research by our team and work by many colleagues have uncovered the negative ecological consequences that occur when seed dispersersdisappear. Now researchers are assessing how seed dispersal decline is affecting plants’ responses to climate change.

Today the Earth is losing species at a rapid rate, potentially representing the sixth mass extinction in its history. In a newly published study, we examine what this loss means for seed dispersal, focusing on birds and mammals that disperse fleshy-fruited plants.

(THE CONVERSATION) Picture a mature, broad-branched tree like an oak, maple or fig. How does it reproduce so that its offspring don’t grow up in its shadow, fighting for light?

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To overcome this challenge, we pulled together data from published studies showing which bird and mammal seed dispersers eat which fruits, how far they spread the seeds, and how their digestive systems’ effects on the seeds help or hinder germination. These three steps together describe what’s required for successful seed dispersal: A seed must be removed from the mother plant, travel some distance away from it and survive to become a seedling.

A new era for plant movement

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