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Nature’s chefs: new way of understanding species interactions

An interdisciplinary team of scientists led by the North Carolina State University has recently proposed an innovative way to think of some interactions among different species, by referring to a variety of plants, animals, and fungi as “nature’s chefs” – organisms that provide food (or the illusion of food) to other organisms.

“There are many ways of classifying species interactions,” said lead author Brad Taylor, an associate professor of Applied Ecology at NC State. “Mutualists interact with other species to both of their benefit. Parasites rely on other species, but the other species doesn’t benefit. Predators devour other species. But the ‘nature’s chef’ concept spans members of all of these groups, with the common factor being that the relevant interactions all rely on food – or the lure of food.”

The experts outlined three ways in which species can produce or prepare food for other organisms – as food, drinks, or food-like lures. While some organisms prepare food for their conspecifics – such as male cockroaches preparing “nuptial food gifts” for females – others may also prepare food for other species, such as the fruit many plants produce to attract animals to disperse their seeds.

“It’s also worth noting that nature’s chefs include humans, and there are striking similarities between human and nonhuman chefs. For example, human chefs use the attractive plating of food or billboards to attract diners, whereas evolutionary processes have led plants to use flowers as an advertisement for their nectar,” Taylor explained.

The researchers also distinguished between organisms producing “honest meals” versus organisms producing “deceptive meals.” Fruits are a good example of an honest meal, benefitting both producers and consumers. 

While animals can extract nutritious elements from the fruits they consume, the plants benefit when animals consume or defecate the seeds away from them, since seed dispersal helps the plants multiply while reducing inbreeding, competition, predation, and parasitism, which are more frequent if seeds are dispersed near the parent plant. 

By contrast, snapping turtles use food mimics to deceive other organisms. Their tongues closely resemble an aquatic worm, which attracts worm-eating organisms to the turtle’s mouth, making them easy prey for these deceitful creatures.

Further research is needed to clarify how the availability of local or seasonal ingredients affects the behavior of nature’s chefs, and what specific methods of “meal preparation” are used by various species.

“Nature’s chefs can provide another way to organize our spectacularly diverse world and also a way to bring people together from disparate disciplines to make new discoveries,” Taylor concluded.

The study is published in the journal BioScience.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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