A Desert Shrub That Outwits Mice

nature, evolution, wildlife, desert, IsraelWhile humans inch closer to their eventual demise by burning up the resources upon which they so richly depend, the earth’s “lower” species are making moves to ensure their longevity. US and Israeli researchers published a joint study in the journal Current Biology that unveils how a desert shrub called Ochradenus baccatus outwits the spiny mice by planting a “mustard bomb” in its seed. When a mouse chews the seed, which then turns to pulp, an embedded enzyme releases a toxic cocktail that causes the mouse to spit it out. This in turn ensures the seed’s survival.

Hot mustard

Researchers from the University of Utah and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology discovered that enzymes present in mignotte berries release isothiocyanates – the flavor of hot mustard – in order to deter the mice from consuming them completely.

When scientists deactivated the mustard bomb enzyme in labs, the mice devoured up to 80% of the seeds, leaving none behind for dispersal.

However, when mice eat mignotte berries in their natural habitat, they tend to retreat to areas that are favorable for the desert bush, according to the study’s co-author and Professor of Biology at the Univeristy of Utah Denise Dearing.

Directed deterrence

As a result, once the hot mustard chemical prompts the mice to spit out the gnarled seeds, they are primed for successful germination.

“The mice are actually dispersing the seeds to a suitable habitat for germination,” Dearing told Red Orbit. “Under the parent plant is a bad spot. A rocky crevice would be a cool, suitable location because it’s not in direct sunlight.”

The process by which plants “outwit” their consumers is called “directed deterrence.”

The best known example before the new study, Dearing noted, involved chili peppers, which deter mammals from eating their seeds because mammals feel pain induced by their ingredient, capsaicin. Because birds “don’t feel the heat at all, they tend not to crush the seeds while they are feeding, so they are good dispersers of chili pepper seeds,” said Dearing.

Chewed seeds are stronger

Most remarkably, the researchers discovered that the chomped seeds were actually twice as likely to germinate as un-chomped seeds, revealing an exciting symbiosis between the spiny mouse and the “clever” bush. We have a lot to learn.

Although human beings have neglected nature’s genius in the last century or so, some enlightened individuals are not only beginning to discern its inherent wisdom, but are attempting to mimic it in design and other fields.

We previously talked to Melissa Sterry, one of the foremost experts on biomimicry, but Egypt has its proponents too. Dayma leads tours that teach young and old about the lessons that camels, scorpions and other species can teach us, and how we can mimic their adaptations to improve life for us as well.

:: Red Orbit

Photo Credit: Michal Samuni-Blank, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology

More on Nature’s Genius:

Israeli Military Uses Biomimicry to Design Butterfly Drone

Inspired by Nature, Water Tips for the Middle East

What Camels and Scorpions Teach Dayma Tourists in Egypt 

Curvy Desert Home Designed by Iranian Students Mimics the Snail


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