Tiny Plants Travel Around the World via Bird Wings

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Bird wings harbor tiny plants that, with their avian transportation, can travel at least half way around the world, a new study finds.

The plants likely fall off here and there, colonizing regions far away from where each of the plant’s journeys began, according to the study, which is published in the journal PeerJ.

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For the study, a team of 10 biologists, including three undergraduate students, collected American golden plover feathers in the field and used microscopes to closely examine the feathers.

The researchers found a total of 23 plant fragments that were trapped in the feathers of long-distance migratory birds that were about to leave for South America.

“We really had no idea what we might find,” one of the undergrads, Emily Behling, was quoted as saying in a press release.

The University of Connecticut senior added, “Each feather was like a lottery ticket, and as we got further into the project I was ecstatic about how many times we won.”

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Clinging to the feathers were mosses, spores, plant pieces and more. Most are thought to be able to grow into new plants if they fall off, or if the bird knocks them off, in a suitable environment.

For example, about half of all known moss species can self-fertilize to produce offspring. Many can grow as clones. It only takes a single successful dispersal event to establish a new population. This helps to explain why moss might suddenly appear here and there in home gardens.

Co-author and PhD candidate Lily Lewis, also from the University of Connecticut, said, “Mosses are especially abundant and diverse in the far Northern and Southern reaches of the Americas, and relative to other types of plants, they commonly occur in both of these regions, yet they have been largely overlooked by scientists studying this extreme distribution. Mosses can help to illuminate the processes that shape global biodiversity.”

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The “extreme distribution” previously puzzled scientists, since other common methods of distribution, such as wind dispersal, didn’t add up. The bird explanation makes more sense.

Each year, about 500,000 American golden plovers fly between the Arctic and South America. Now we know that the birds do this with hundreds of thousands of tiny plants trapped in their feathers.

Photo: An American golden plover about to take flight. Credit: Thomas C. Rothe/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service