Everyone knows that plants play an important role for the survival of wild animals by providing essential food and shelter.
What’s less obvious is that animals also help plants in crucial ways that form a sensitive and beautiful symbiotic relationship.
Animals help plants pollinate their flowers and spread seeds. Their droppings fertilize the soil, while grazing & browsing animals help to prepare the ground by clearing away overgrown brush.
With a bit of observation, we can learn a tremendous amount about plants from the animals.
In fact, all the most knowledgable plant & herbal enthusiasts I’ve met also had a healthy respect for wildlife tracking and a keen eye for studying animals.
These symbiotic interactions between plants & animals are all part of understanding why everything is interconnected in nature.
So let’s take a wander outside and explore how animals help plants:
1. Animals Are Pollinators
While some plants are capable of self-pollinating and spreading their genetic material through wind, most plants depend on animals like insects or birds to do this work for them.
Pollen is a fine powder of male genetic material that fertilizes female plants and enables reproduction. However, since plants are rooted in place, they have to find creative ways of transporting their pollen.
To do this, flowering plants attract pollinators by producing an energy-rich nectar that is loved by insects, hummingbirds and even some species of bats.
When an insect comes to gather nectar, little bits of pollen also become stuck to their bodies. Then as they visit the next flower, the pollen drops off and cross pollination occurs.
This is a perfect example of how plants & animals depend on each other in symbiotic relationships.
The plant provides food, and the insect provides transportation that helps to spread genetic material further away, and supports the overall stability of a species.
2. Animals Help Plants Spread Seeds
Another way animals help plants is by spreading the seeds after pollination.
This happens after the flowering stage, once the plants have produced a number of seeds, each with the potential to form an entirely new plant.
A plants best chance to preserve their species is to spread their seeds as far and wide as they possibly can. So here again they turn to the animals for help with transportation.
Seed spreading via animals happens a number of different ways.
The first method is mechanical. Some plants have developed seeds with sharp hooks or burs that latch onto the fur of passing creatures.
In this case, the plant is relying on an unsuspecting animal to walk by and pick up their seeds by random chance.
One advantage of this method is the animal will likely carry those seeds quite long distances, which is great for species preservation.
However, the risk is that if no animal comes by, the seeds simply won’t get distributed.
To overcome this disadvantage, some plants will offer a bribe to animals in the form of fruit, or a fleshy nut.
As animals are attracted to the promise of easy food, there’s a higher likelihood of the seeds being carried a short distance by the animal before eating the fruit and leaving the seeds behind.
In the case of edible seeds or nuts, plants are relying on the tendency of many animals to store food and cache things they never come back to.
Squirrels & mice will cache huge volumes of seeds and nuts, burying them in various places around the landscape, where many of them are forgotten or lost and then germinate the next round of plants.
Some seeds can even be consumed by animals without any negative effects on the plants survival.
It’s been discovered that some fruiting plants will actually germinate more effectively after they’ve been cleaned of pulp by the digestive process of certain bird species.
In some cases, seeds that pass all the way through bird’s digestive tract will germinate at a higher rate than those that went uneaten.
3. Animal Droppings Help Fertilize The Soil
Animals also help plants through less direct methods by improving the overall quality of soil on a landscape.
As animals eat the flesh of plants, those nutrients go through a composting process that unlocks and recycles fertility back into the landscape.
Most plants have specific fertility requirements for germination that depend on having a wide variety of living micro-organisms in the soil.
These micro-organisms are inoculated into the soil through the digestive tracts of animals.
The fascinating thing is that each different type of animal has it’s own unique micro-biome of bacteria living in their guts.
This means that not only do animals fertilize the soil, but having a greater diversity of animals actually supplies a more complete profile of nutrition for plants to use.
This is a big part of why biodiversity of both plants and animals is so important for the future success of our planet.
If you have rabbits, deer, birds, bats, foxes & voles all living together in one place, that’s 6 distinct types of animal fertilizers all adding unique elements into the soil system.
Of course, this is a simplified example as most ecosystems have significantly more than just 6 animal species contributing to the soil biology.
4. Animals Help Clear Brush & Prepare Growing Conditions
Plants also require specific sunlight conditions in order to grow. If there’s too much competition for light or soil space, they become choked and unable to reach their potential.
This can easily turn into a situation where a particular plant species gets out of control, eventually causing a loss of biodiversity.
However, the presence of plant-eating animals on a landscape will act as a balance check that ensures any one species doesn’t get too out of control.
The presence of grazing and browsing animals cuts back the overgrowth, creating opportunities for more sensitive species to co-exist in a habitat of greater biodiversity and overall health.
The importance of this animal function can be seen in habitats where the plant-eating animals become locally extinct or imbalanced, causing the environment to become dominated by a lower diversity of plants.
In this way, animals are not just essential for the lives of plants, but also for the continuing success of entire ecosystems on our planet.
An extreme example is the North American Beaver which can completely transform forests into wetlands, creating pockets of new habitat for plants that would otherwise be unable to grow.
Everything in nature is interconnected in a delicate balance of life…
And the more we know about how plants & animals depend on each other, the easier it is to design ecological solutions that help our earth to thrive long into the future!
Let’s finish with four observation questions to help you study how animals are interacting with the plants in your area and better appreciate the beautiful complexity of nature:
- What animals can you find outside?
- How are they interacting with local plants?
- How do these interactions change in different seasons?
- What evidence can you find of pollinators, seed dispersal, fertilization and recycling plant matter back into the soil?
There’s enough in these four questions to last an entire lifetime of observation & discovery in nature.
So what are you waiting for? Get outside & connect with those plants!