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STUDY: Some Fruits Adapt Color and Smell to Attract Their Seed Disperser Animals

The power of nature compels you!

AMBOVOMBE, MADAGASCAR - MAY 23: Wild ring-tailed lemurs eat bananas in a compound belonging to an aid agency, on May 23, 2017 in Ambovombe, Madagascar. Lemurs are found only on this island. All types of lemurs are endangered due to destruction of their environment, the capture of babies as pets, and their killing as bush meat. 92% of Madagascar's population live below the poverty line on less than $2 a day. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Can’t resist that juicy, ripe summer raspberry? It turns out your appetite may not be driving the show — the raspberry plant likely knows exactly what it’s doing.

Almost all fruits have seeds, and they’re designed that way for reproductive purposes; animals eat the fruit, transport the seeds internally, and — eventually — deposit them far and wide, ensuring the continuation of the plant species.

Scientists have long assumed fruits were so attractive to animals due to simple natural selection — the juiciest, most delicious fruits get the most takers. However, two recent studies have indicated that plants themselves could actively be adapting to specific animals’ sense of sight and smell.

One of the reports, published in late September in Biology Letters, compared the evolution of fruit color on plants in a national park in Madagascar, where the primary animals for seed dispersal are red-green colorblind lemurs, and one in Uganda, where the seed dispersers are typically primates and birds with normal vision.

The fruits in Uganda were found to have higher contrast against the leaves in the background in the “red-green and luminance channels,” where the yellow-blue channel was favored in Madagascar — specifically, the scientists believed, to mitigate the visual limitations of the night-hunting lemurs.

“When I first learned that plants, in a way, behaved — that they were actually communicating information to animals — my mind exploded,” Kim Valenta, evolutionary ecologist at Duke University and co-author of the study, told The New York Times. “We’re only just beginning to understand how much plants and animals mean to one another, which to me is just a signal that it’s more important to conserve the entire [ecosystem] intact.”

The second study, published in early October in Science Advances, showed that plants that rely on night-hunting colorblind lemurs for seed dispersal actually created more fragrant fruits to overcome the lemurs’ sight disability.

In the past, scientists had assumed fruit with a strong scent was simply an unintended result of chemicals released during the ripening process — not an intentional adaptation to attract seed-dispersing animals.

The Science Advances study, however, showed that fruits that relied primarily on birds for seed dispersal were significantly less scented when ripe.

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  • Kat Merck is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. An amateur naturalist who stud... keep reading

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