Seed dispersal

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In Spermatophyte plants, seed dispersal is the movement, spread or transport of seeds away from the parent plant. [1] Plants have limited mobility and rely upon a variety of dispersal vectors to transport their seeds, including both abiotic vectors, such as the wind, and living (biotic) vectors such as birds. Seeds can be dispersed away from the parent plant individually or collectively, as well as dispersed in both space and time. The patterns of seed dispersal are determined in large part by the dispersal mechanism and this has important implications for the demographic and genetic structure of plant populations, as well as migration patterns and species interactions. There are five main modes of seed dispersal: gravity, wind, ballistic, water, and by animals. Some plants are serotinous and only disperse their seeds in response to an environmental stimulus. These modes are typically inferred based on adaptations, such as wings or fleshy fruit. [1] However, this simplified view may ignore complexity in dispersal. Plants can disperse via modes without possessing the typical associated adaptations and plant traits may be multifunctional. [2] [3]


Epilobium hirsutum seed head dispersing seeds Epilobium hirsutum - Seed head - Triptych.jpg
Epilobium hirsutum seed head dispersing seeds


Seed dispersal is likely to have several benefits for different plant species. Seed survival is often higher away from the parent plant. This higher survival may result from the actions of density-dependent seed and seedling predators and pathogens, which often target the high concentrations of seeds beneath adults. [4] Competition with adult plants may also be lower when seeds are transported away from their parent.

Seed dispersal also allows plants to reach specific habitats that are favorable for survival, a hypothesis known as directed dispersal. For example, Ocotea endresiana (Lauraceae) is a tree species from Latin America which is dispersed by several species of birds, including the three-wattled bellbird. Male bellbirds perch on dead trees in order to attract mates, and often defecate seeds beneath these perches where the seeds have a high chance of survival because of high light conditions and escape from fungal pathogens. [5] In the case of fleshy-fruited plants, seed-dispersal in animal guts (endozoochory) often enhances the amount, the speed, and the asynchrony of germination, which can have important plant benefits. [6]

Seeds dispersed by ants (myrmecochory) are not only dispersed short distances but are also buried underground by the ants. These seeds can thus avoid adverse environmental effects such as fire or drought, reach nutrient-rich microsites and survive longer than other seeds. [7] These features are peculiar to myrmecochory, which may thus provide additional benefits not present in other dispersal modes. [8]

Seed dispersal may also allow plants to colonize vacant habitats and even new geographic regions. [9] Dispersal distances and deposition sites depend on the movement range of the disperser, and longer dispersal distances are sometimes accomplished through diplochory, the sequential dispersal by two or more different dispersal mechanisms. In fact, recent evidence suggests that the majority of seed dispersal events involves more than one dispersal phase. [10]


Seed dispersal is sometimes split into autochory (when dispersal is attained using the plant's own means) and allochory (when obtained through external means).

Long distance

Long-distance seed dispersal (LDD) is a type of spatial dispersal that is currently defined by two forms, proportional and actual distance. A plant's fitness and survival may heavily depend on this method of seed dispersal depending on certain environmental factors. The first form of LDD, proportional distance, measures the percentage of seeds (1% out of total number of seeds produced) that travel the farthest distance out of a 99% probability distribution. [11] [12] The proportional definition of LDD is in actuality a descriptor for more extreme dispersal events. An example of LDD would be that of a plant developing a specific dispersal vector or morphology in order to allow for the dispersal of its seeds over a great distance. The actual or absolute method identifies LDD as a literal distance. It classifies 1 km as the threshold distance for seed dispersal. Here, threshold means the minimum distance a plant can disperse its seeds and have it still count as LDD. [13] [12] There is a second, unmeasurable, form of LDD besides proportional and actual. This is known as the non-standard form. Non-standard LDD is when seed dispersal occurs in an unusual and difficult-to-predict manner. An example would be a rare or unique incident in which a normally-lemur-dependent deciduous tree of Madagascar was to have seeds transported to the coastline of South Africa via attachment to a mermaid purse (egg case) laid by a shark or skate. [14] [15] [16] [6] A driving factor for the evolutionary significance of LDD is that it increases plant fitness by decreasing neighboring plant competition for offspring. However, it is still unclear today as to how specific traits, conditions and trade-offs (particularly within short seed dispersal) affect LDD evolution.


The "bill" and seed dispersal mechanism of Geranium pratense Geranium sanguineum02.jpg
The "bill" and seed dispersal mechanism of Geranium pratense

Autochorous plants disperse their seed without any help from an external vector, as a result this limits plants considerably as to the distance they can disperse their seed. [17] Two other types of autochory not described in detail here are blastochory, where the stem of the plant crawls along the ground to deposit its seed far from the base of the plant, and herpochory (the seed crawls by means of trichomes and changes in humidity). [18]


Barochory or the plant use of gravity for dispersal is a simple means of achieving seed dispersal. The effect of gravity on heavier fruits causes them to fall from the plant when ripe. Fruits exhibiting this type of dispersal include apples, coconuts and passionfruit and those with harder shells (which often roll away from the plant to gain more distance). Gravity dispersal also allows for later transmission by water or animal. [19]

Ballistic dispersal

Ballochory is a type of dispersal where the seed is forcefully ejected by explosive dehiscence of the fruit. Often the force that generates the explosion results from turgor pressure within the fruit or due to internal tensions within the fruit. [17] Some examples of plants which disperse their seeds autochorously include: Arceuthobium spp. , Cardamine hirsuta , Ecballium spp. , Euphorbia heterophylla , [20] Geranium spp. , Impatiens spp. , Sucrea spp , Raddia spp. [21] and others. An exceptional example of ballochory is Hura crepitans —this plant is commonly called the dynamite tree due to the sound of the fruit exploding. The explosions are powerful enough to throw the seed up to 100 meters. [22]

Witch hazel uses ballistic dispersal without explosive mechanisms by simply squeezing the seeds out at 28 mph. [23]


Allochory refers to any of many types of seed dispersal where a vector or secondary agent is used to disperse seeds. These vectors may include wind, water, animals or others.


Wind dispersal of dandelion fruits Photos-photos 1088103921 Floating.jpg
Wind dispersal of dandelion fruits
Entada phaseoloides - Hydrochory Entada phaseoloides MHNT graines.jpg
Entada phaseoloides – Hydrochory

Wind dispersal (anemochory) is one of the more primitive means of dispersal. Wind dispersal can take on one of two primary forms: seeds or fruits can float on the breeze or, alternatively, they can flutter to the ground. [24] The classic examples of these dispersal mechanisms, in the temperate northern hemisphere, include dandelions, which have a feathery pappus attached to their fruits (achenes) and can be dispersed long distances, and maples, which have winged fruits (samaras) that flutter to the ground.

An important constraint on wind dispersal is the need for abundant seed production to maximize the likelihood of a seed landing in a site suitable for germination. Some wind-dispersed plants, such as the dandelion, can adjust their morphology in order to increase or decrease the rate of germination. [25] There are also strong evolutionary constraints on this dispersal mechanism. For instance, Cody and Overton (1996) found that species in the Asteraceae on islands tended to have reduced dispersal capabilities (i.e., larger seed mass and smaller pappus) relative to the same species on the mainland. [26] Also, Helonias bullata , a species of perennial herb native to the United States, evolved to utilize wind dispersal as the primary seed dispersal mechanism; however, limited wind in its habitat prevents the seeds to successfully disperse away from its parents, resulting in clusters of population. [27] Reliance on wind dispersal is common among many weedy or ruderal species. Unusual mechanisms of wind dispersal include tumbleweeds, where the entire plant (except for the roots) is blown by the wind. Physalis fruits, when not fully ripe, may sometimes be dispersed by wind due to the space between the fruit and the covering calyx which acts as an air bladder.


Many aquatic (water dwelling) and some terrestrial (land dwelling) species use hydrochory, or seed dispersal through water. Seeds can travel for extremely long distances, depending on the specific mode of water dispersal; this especially applies to fruits which are waterproof and float on water.

The water lily is an example of such a plant. Water lilies' flowers make a fruit that floats in the water for a while and then drops down to the bottom to take root on the floor of the pond. The seeds of palm trees can also be dispersed by water. If they grow near oceans, the seeds can be transported by ocean currents over long distances, allowing the seeds to be dispersed as far as other continents.

Mangrove trees grow directly out of the water; when their seeds are ripe they fall from the tree and grow roots as soon as they touch any kind of soil. During low tide, they might fall in soil instead of water and start growing right where they fell. If the water level is high, however, they can be carried far away from where they fell. Mangrove trees often make little islands as dirt and detritus collect in their roots, making little bodies of land.

Animals: epi- and endozoochory

The small hooks of the surface of a bur enable attachment to animal fur for dispersion. Bur Macro BlackBg.jpg
The small hooks of the surface of a bur enable attachment to animal fur for dispersion.

Animals can disperse plant seeds in several ways, all named zoochory. Seeds can be transported on the outside of vertebrate animals (mostly mammals), a process known as epizoochory. Plant species transported externally by animals can have a variety of adaptations for dispersal, including adhesive mucus, and a variety of hooks, spines and barbs. [28] A typical example of an epizoochorous plant is Trifolium angustifolium, a species of Old World clover which adheres to animal fur by means of stiff hairs covering the seed. [9] Epizoochorous plants tend to be herbaceous plants, with many representative species in the families Apiaceae and Asteraceae. [28] However, epizoochory is a relatively rare dispersal syndrome for plants as a whole; the percentage of plant species with seeds adapted for transport on the outside of animals is estimated to be below 5%. [28] Nevertheless, epizoochorous transport can be highly effective if seeds attach to wide-ranging animals. This form of seed dispersal has been implicated in rapid plant migration and the spread of invasive species. [9]

Seed dispersal via ingestion and defecation by vertebrate animals (mostly birds and mammals), or endozoochory, is the dispersal mechanism for most tree species. [29] Endozoochory is generally a coevolved mutualistic relationship in which a plant surrounds seeds with an edible, nutritious fruit as a good food resource for animals that consume it. Such plants may advertise the presence of food resource by using colour. [30] Birds and mammals are the most important seed dispersers, but a wide variety of other animals, including turtles, fish, and insects (e.g. tree wētā and scree wētā), can transport viable seeds. [31] [32] The exact percentage of tree species dispersed by endozoochory varies between habitats, but can range to over 90% in some tropical rainforests. [29] Seed dispersal by animals in tropical rainforests has received much attention, and this interaction is considered an important force shaping the ecology and evolution of vertebrate and tree populations. [33] In the tropics, large animal seed dispersers (such as tapirs, chimpanzees, black-and-white colobus, toucans and hornbills) may disperse large seeds with few other seed dispersal agents. The extinction of these large frugivores from poaching and habitat loss may have negative effects on the tree populations that depend on them for seed dispersal and reduce genetic diversity. [34] [35] A variation of endozoochory is regurgitation of seeds rather than their passage in faeces after passing through the entire digestive tract. [36] The seed dispersal by birds and other mammals are able to attach themselves to the feathers and hairs of these vertebrates, which is their main method of dispersal. [37]

Seed dispersal by ants ( myrmecochory ) is a dispersal mechanism of many shrubs of the southern hemisphere or understorey herbs of the northern hemisphere. [7] Seeds of myrmecochorous plants have a lipid-rich attachment called the elaiosome, which attracts ants. Ants carry such seeds into their colonies, feed the elaiosome to their larvae and discard the otherwise intact seed in an underground chamber. [38] Myrmecochory is thus a coevolved mutualistic relationship between plants and seed-disperser ants. Myrmecochory has independently evolved at least 100 times in flowering plants and is estimated to be present in at least 11 000 species, but likely up to 23 000 or 9% of all species of flowering plants. [7] Myrmecochorous plants are most frequent in the fynbos vegetation of the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa, the kwongan vegetation and other dry habitat types of Australia, dry forests and grasslands of the Mediterranean region and northern temperate forests of western Eurasia and eastern North America, where up to 30–40% of understorey herbs are myrmecochorous. [7] Seed dispersal by ants is a mutualistic relationship and benefits both the ant and the plant. [37]

Seed predators, which include many rodents (such as squirrels) and some birds (such as jays) may also disperse seeds by hoarding the seeds in hidden caches. [39] The seeds in caches are usually well-protected from other seed predators and if left uneaten will grow into new plants. In addition, rodents may also disperse seeds via seed spitting due to the presence of secondary metabolites in ripe fruits. [40] Finally, seeds may be secondarily dispersed from seeds deposited by primary animal dispersers, a process known as diplochory. For example, dung beetles are known to disperse seeds from clumps of feces in the process of collecting dung to feed their larvae. [41]

Other types of zoochory are chiropterochory (by bats), malacochory (by molluscs, mainly terrestrial snails), ornithochory (by birds) and saurochory (by non-bird sauropsids). Zoochory can occur in more than one phase, for example through diploendozoochory, where a primary disperser (an animal that ate a seed) along with the seeds it is carrying is eaten by a predator that then carries the seed further before depositing it. [42]


Epizoochory in Bidens tripartita; the hooked achenes of the plant readily attach to clothing, such as this shirt sleeve. Epizoochoria NRM.jpg
Epizoochory in Bidens tripartita ; the hooked achenes of the plant readily attach to clothing, such as this shirt sleeve.
Seed dispersal by a car

Dispersal by humans ( anthropochory ) used to be seen as a form of dispersal by animals. Its most widespread and intense cases account for the planting of much of the land area on the planet, through agriculture. In this case, human societies form a long-term relationship with plant species, and create conditions for their growth.

Recent research points out that human dispersers differ from animal dispersers by having a much higher mobility, based on the technical means of human transport. [43] On the one hand, dispersal by humans also acts on smaller, regional scales and drives the dynamics of existing biological populations. On the other hand, dispersal by humans may act on large geographical scales and lead to the spread of invasive species. [44]

Humans may disperse seeds by many various means and some surprisingly high distances have been repeatedly measured. [45] Examples are: dispersal on human clothes (up to 250 m), [46] on shoes (up to 5 km), [43] or by cars (regularly ~ 250 m, singles cases > 100 km). [47] Seed dispersal by cars can be a form of unintentional transport of seeds by humans, which can reach far distances, greater than other conventional methods of dispersal. [48] Cars that carry soil are able to contain viable seeds, a study by Dunmail J. Hodkinson and Ken Thompson found that the most common seeds that were carried by vehicle were broadleaf plantain (Plantago major), Annual meadow grass (Poa annua), rough meadow grass (Poa trivialis), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and wild chamomile (Matricaria discoidea). [48]

Deliberate seed dispersal also occurs as seed bombing. This has risks, as unsuitable provenance may introduce genetically unsuitable plants to new environments.


Seed dispersal has many consequences for the ecology and evolution of plants. Dispersal is necessary for species migrations, and in recent times dispersal ability is an important factor in whether or not a species transported to a new habitat by humans will become an invasive species. [49] Dispersal is also predicted to play a major role in the origin and maintenance of species diversity. For example, myrmecochory increased the rate of diversification more than twofold in plant groups in which it has evolved because myrmecochorous lineages contain more than twice as many species as their non-myrmecochorous sister groups. [50] Dispersal of seeds away from the parent organism has a central role in two major theories for how biodiversity is maintained in natural ecosystems, the Janzen-Connell hypothesis and recruitment limitation. [4] Seed dispersal is essential in allowing forest migration of flowering plants. It can be influenced by the production of different fruit morphs in plants, a phenomenon known as heterocarpy. [51] These fruit morphs are different in size and shape and have different dispersal ranges, which allows seeds to be dispersed for varying distances and adapt to different environments. [51]

In addition, the speed and direction of wind are highly influential in the dispersal process and in turn the deposition patterns of floating seeds in the stagnant water bodies. The transportation of seeds is led by the wind direction. This effects colonization situated on the banks of a river or to wetlands adjacent to streams relative to the distinct wind directions. The wind dispersal process can also affect connections between water bodies. Essentially, wind plays a larger role in the dispersal of waterborne seeds in a short period of time, days and seasons, but the ecological process allows the process to become balanced throughout a time period of several years. The time period of which the dispersal occurs is essential when considering the consequences of wind on the ecological process.

See also

Related Research Articles

Seed Embryonic plant enclosed in a protective outer covering

A seed is an embryonic plant enclosed in a protective outer covering, along with a food reserve. The formation of the seed is part of the process of reproduction in seed plants, the spermatophytes, including the gymnosperm and angiosperm plants.

Mutualism (biology) Mutually beneficial interaction between species

Mutualism describes the ecological interaction between two or more species where each species has a net benefit. Mutualism is a common type of ecological interaction. Prominent examples include most vascular plants engaged in mutualistic interactions with mycorrhizae, flowering plants being pollinated by animals, vascular plants being dispersed by animals, and corals with zooxanthellae, among many others. Mutualism can be contrasted with interspecific competition, in which each species experiences reduced fitness, and exploitation, or parasitism, in which one species benefits at the "expense" of the other.

Pollination Biological process occurring in plants

Pollination is the transfer of pollen from an anther of a plant to the stigma of a plant, later enabling fertilisation and the production of seeds, most often by an animal or by wind. Pollinating agents can be animals such as insects, birds, and bats; water; wind; and even plants themselves, when self-pollination occurs within a closed flower. Pollination often occurs within a species. When pollination occurs between species it can produce hybrid offspring in nature and in plant breeding work.

Biological interaction Effect that organisms have on other organisms

In ecology, a biological interaction is the effect that a pair of organisms living together in a community have on each other. They can be either of the same species, or of different species. These effects may be short-term, like pollination and predation, or long-term; both often strongly influence the evolution of the species involved. A long-term interaction is called a symbiosis. Symbioses range from mutualism, beneficial to both partners, to competition, harmful to both partners. Interactions can be indirect, through intermediaries such as shared resources or common enemies. This type of relationship can be shown by net effect based on individual effects on both organisms arising out of relationship.

Frugivore Organism that eats fruit

A frugivore is an animal that thrives mostly on raw fruits or succulent fruit-like produce of plants such as roots, shoots, nuts and seeds. Approximately 20% of mammalian herbivores eat fruit. Frugivores are highly dependent on the abundance and nutritional composition of fruits. Frugivores can benefit or hinder fruit-producing plants by either dispersing or destroying their seeds through digestion. When both the fruit-producing plant and the frugivore benefit by fruit-eating behavior the interaction is a form of mutualism.

Biological dispersal Movement of individuals from their birth site to a breeding site

Biological dispersal refers to both the movement of individuals from their birth site to their breeding site, as well as the movement from one breeding site to another . Dispersal is also used to describe the movement of propagules such as seeds and spores. Technically, dispersal is defined as any movement that has the potential to lead to gene flow. The act of dispersal involves three phases: departure, transfer, settlement and there are different fitness costs and benefits associated with each of these phases. Through simply moving from one habitat patch to another, the dispersal of an individual has consequences not only for individual fitness, but also for population dynamics, population genetics, and species distribution. Understanding dispersal and the consequences both for evolutionary strategies at a species level, and for processes at an ecosystem level, requires understanding on the type of dispersal, the dispersal range of a given species, and the dispersal mechanisms involved.

Myrmecophyte Plants that live in association with ants

Myrmecophytes are plants that live in a mutualistic association with a colony of ants. There are over 100 different genera of myrmecophytes. These plants possess structural adaptations that provide ants with food and/or shelter. These specialized structures include domatia, food bodies, and extrafloral nectaries. In exchange for food and shelter, ants aid the myrmecophyte in pollination, seed dispersal, gathering of essential nutrients, and/or defense. Specifically, domatia adapted to ants may be called myrmecodomatia.


Myrmecochory is seed dispersal by ants, an ecologically significant ant-plant interaction with worldwide distribution. Most myrmecochorous plants produce seeds with elaiosomes, a term encompassing various external appendages or "food bodies" rich in lipids, amino acids, or other nutrients that are attractive to ants. The seed with its attached elaiosome is collectively known as a diaspore. Seed dispersal by ants is typically accomplished when foraging workers carry diaspores back to the ant colony, after which the elaiosome is removed or fed directly to ant larvae. Once the elaiosome is consumed, the seed is usually discarded in underground middens or ejected from the nest. Although diaspores are seldom distributed far from the parent plant, myrmecochores also benefit from this predominantly mutualistic interaction through dispersal to favourable locations for germination, as well as escape from seed predation.

Ovary (botany) Flowering plant reproductive part

In the flowering plants, an ovary is a part of the female reproductive organ of the flower or gynoecium. Specifically, it is the part of the pistil which holds the ovule(s) and is located above or below or at the point of connection with the base of the petals and sepals. The pistil may be made up of one carpel or of several fused carpels, and therefore the ovary can contain part of one carpel or parts of several fused carpels. Above the ovary is the style and the stigma, which is where the pollen lands and germinates to grow down through the style to the ovary, and, for each individual pollen grain, to fertilize one individual ovule. Some wind pollinated flowers have much reduced and modified ovaries.

Elaiosome Fleshy structures attached to the seeds of plants

Elaiosomes are fleshy structures that are attached to the seeds of many plant species. The elaiosome is rich in lipids and proteins, and may be variously shaped. Many plants have elaiosomes that attract ants, which take the seed to their nest and feed the elaiosome to their larvae. After the larvae have consumed the elaiosome, the ants take the seed to their waste disposal area, which is rich in nutrients from the ant frass and dead bodies, where the seeds germinate. This type of seed dispersal is termed myrmecochory from the Greek "ant" (myrmex) and "circular dance" (khoreíā). This type of symbiotic relationship appears to be mutualistic, more specifically dispersive mutualism according to Ricklefs, R.E. (2001), as the plant benefits because its seeds are dispersed to favorable germination sites, and also because it is planted by the ants.

Flower Reproductive structure in flowering plants

A flower, sometimes known as a bloom or blossom, is the reproductive structure found in flowering plants. The biological function of a flower is to facilitate reproduction, usually by providing a mechanism for the union of sperm with eggs. Flowers may facilitate outcrossing resulting from cross-pollination or allow selfing when self-pollination occurs.

Seed predation Feeding on seeds as a main or exclusive food source

Seed predation, often referred to as granivory, is a type of plant-animal interaction in which granivores feed on the seeds of plants as a main or exclusive food source, in many cases leaving the seeds damaged and not viable. Granivores are found across many families of vertebrates as well as invertebrates ; thus, seed predation occurs in virtually all terrestrial ecosystems. Seed predation is commonly divided into two distinctive temporal categories, pre-dispersal and post-dispersal predation, which affect the fitness of the parental plant and the dispersed offspring, respectively. Mitigating pre- and post-dispersal predation may involve different strategies. To counter seed predation, plants have evolved both physical defenses and chemical defenses. However, as plants have evolved seed defenses, seed predators have adapted to plant defenses. Thus, many interesting examples of coevolution arise from this dynamic relationship.

Fruit anatomy Internal makeup of fruits

Fruit anatomy is the plant anatomy of the internal structure of fruit. Fruits are the mature ovary or ovaries of one or more flowers. They are found in three main anatomical categories: aggregate fruits, multiple fruits, and simple fruits. Aggregate fruits are formed from a single compound flower and contain many ovaries or fruitlets. Examples include raspberries and blackberries. Multiple fruits are formed from the fused ovaries of multiple flowers or inflorescence. Examples include fig, mulberry, and pineapple.

Diaspore (botany) Plant seed or spore and tissues that aid dispersal

In botany, a diaspore is a plant dispersal unit consisting of a seed or spore plus any additional tissues that assist dispersal. In some seed plants, the diaspore is a seed and fruit together, or a seed and elaiosome. In a few seed plants, the diaspore is most or all of the plant, and is known as a tumbleweed.

Dispersal vector

A dispersal vector is an agent of biological dispersal that moves a dispersal unit, or organism, away from its birth population to another location or population in which the individual will reproduce. These dispersal units can range from pollen to seeds to fungi to entire organisms.

<i>Simarouba amara</i> Species of tree in the family Simaroubaceae

Simarouba amara is a species of tree in the family Simaroubaceae, found in the rainforests and savannahs of South and Central America and the Caribbean. It was first described by Aubl. in French Guiana in 1775 and is one of six species of Simarouba. The tree is evergreen, but produces a new set of leaves once a year. It requires relatively high levels of light to grow and grows rapidly in these conditions, but lives for a relatively short time. In Panama, it flowers during the dry season in February and March, whereas in Costa Rica, where there is no dry season it flowers later, between March and July. As the species is dioecious, the trees are either male or female and only produce male or female flowers. The small yellow flowers are thought to be pollinated by insects, the resulting fruits are dispersed by animals including monkeys, birds and fruit-eating bats and the seeds are also dispersed by leaf cutter ants.

<i>Acromyrmex striatus</i> Species of ant

Acromyrmex striatus is a species of the leaf-cutter ants found in the Neotropics.

<i>Platypodium elegans</i> Species of legume

Platypodium elegans, the graceful platypodium, is a large leguminous tree found in the Neotropics that forms part of the forest canopy. It was first described by Julius Rudolph Theodor Vogel in 1837 and is the type species of the genus. The tree has been known to grow up to 30 metres in height and have a trunk with a diameter up to 1 m at breast height. Its trunk has large holes in it, sometimes making it possible to see through the trunk. The holes provide a habitat for giant damselflies and other insects both when alive and once the tree has died and fallen over. It has compound leaves each of which is made up of 10–20 leaflets. Three new chemical compounds have been isolated from the leaves and they form part of the diet of several monkeys and the squirrel Sciurus ingrami. In Panama it flowers from April to June, the flowers contain only four ovules, but normally only one of these reaches maturity forming a winged seed pod around 10 cm long and weighing 2 g. During the dry season around a year after the flowers are fertilised, the seeds are dispersed by the wind and the tree loses it leaves. The seeds are eaten by agoutis and by bruchid beetle larvae. The majority of seedlings are killed by damping off fungi in the first few months of growth, with seedlings that grow nearer the parent trees being more likely to die. The seedlings are relatively unable to survive in deep shade compared to other species in the same habitat. Various epiphytes are known to grow on P. elegans with the cactus Epiphyllum phyllanthus being the most abundant in Panama. Despite having holes in its trunk which should encourage debris and seeds to collect, hemiepiphytes are relatively uncommon, meaning that animals are not attracted to it to feed and then defecate. It has no known uses in traditional medicine and although it can be used for timber, the wood is of poor quality.

Seed dispersal syndromes are morphological characters of seeds correlated to particular seed dispersal agents. Dispersal is the event by which individuals move from the site of their parents to establish in a new area. A seed disperser is the vector by which a seed moves from its parent to the resting place where the individual will establish, for instance an animal. Similar to the term syndrome, a diaspore is a morphological functional unit of a seed for dispersal purposes.

Diplochory, also known as “secondary dispersal”, “indirect dispersal” or "two-phase dispersal", is a seed dispersal mechanism in which a plant's seed is moved sequentially by more than one dispersal mechanism or vector. The significance of the multiple dispersal steps on the plant fitness and population dynamics depends on the type of dispersers involved. In many cases, secondary seed dispersal by invertebrates or rodents moves seeds over a relatively short distance and a large proportion of the seeds may be lost to seed predation within this step. Longer dispersal distances and potentially larger ecological consequences follow from sequential endochory by two different animals, i.e. diploendozoochory: a primary disperser that initially consumes the seed, and a secondary, carnivorous animal that kills and eats the primary consumer along with the seeds in the prey's digestive tract, and then transports the seed further in its own digestive tract.


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