Armored defenses

hard shells and prickly exteriors

Organisms that can’t run away or hide from would-be predators often defend themselves with some sort of armor that deter access to the soft bodies inside. Clams, cockles, and mussels are enclosed in hard shells. Turtles and armadillos wear hard body-armor.  Butternuts and black walnuts are famously tough nuts to crack. In some cases the armor is not a hard shell but a covering of sharp spines. But for every armored defense, there is a counter-measure that allows some predators to get at the edible parts inside.

The sharp teeth of rodents can gnaw a hole in the side of a seed. Years ago, I sometimes used cherry pits as bait in live traps for mice: the mice could neatly carve a hole in the side of that seed and extract the nutritious nugget inside. Fox squirrels in the eastern deciduous forest harvest and cache black walnuts for later consumption, gnawing open the tough shell (note: these are not the domestic thin-shelled “English” or Persian walnuts we buy in the store). Brazil nuts are notoriously hard-shelled, but agoutis can open the big enclosing fruit and extract the very hard seeds, which they cache, to be opened and eaten later.

The strong bill of a blue jay can hammer open an acorn. Oystercatchers sometimes pound on a mussel shell to break it, then sever the shell-closing muscle, allowing the shell to open. However, our black oystercatcher is said to prefer just to jab its long bill into open shells and then sever that muscle.

Hard shells can be smashed by dropping then onto a hard surface. This seems to be a popular method for a variety of predators. Crows and gulls often do this with shellfish—carrying the prey high above a rocky beach and letting it fall, then coming down to extract the flesh from the broken housing. Sometimes it takes several drops. And there’s often a sneaker nearby who’ll try to snatch the meat before the original bird descends. Some gulls are reported to select hard surfaces for dropping big clams but can use softer mudflats for smaller clams.

Several kinds of eagles are said to carry turtles aloft, then letting them fall onto rocks and smash open. New Caledonian crows drop candlenuts onto anvil stones; then they pry out the edible nut. Coconut crabs eat many things, but when a coconut is on the menu, the crab may climb a tree and drop the large nut to crack it, then finishing the job with its big claws.

Sometimes a tool is used as a hammer to open a food item in a hard shell. Chimpanzees (and a few other primates) are well- known for this behavior, teaching the method to their offspring. Sea otters hold a shelled prey on their chests as the float about, using a rock to beat on and crack the shell. Egyptian vultures may crack ostrich eggs by throwing stones at them.

Or maybe you get somebody else to do it for you. There’s the famous situation in Japan, in which carrion crows have learned to exploit traffic patterns to open hard-shelled walnuts. The crows are reported to wait for a traffic-stopping red light and then place walnuts in the roadway before the light turns green. When the traffic moves on again, the vehicles pass over and crack the nuts, and the crows zip down to grab the kernels. They are also said to drop the nuts in front of moving cars. Similar behavior has been reported for American crows in California, except that there the behavior is not timed to the traffic patterns.

Octopuses have at least two means of opening clam or mussel shells. One method is using the suction cups on the arms to pull the two shells apart. Another method is to drill through the shell (octopuses have two kinds of drills for this purpose), sometimes injecting a venom that relaxes the shell-closing muscle. Different kinds of octopuses have their favorite points of where on the shell to drill. Sometimes an octopus uses its beak to chip off thin parts of a shell, giving access for injection of venom.

Whelks are big, carnivorous snails that drill through shells to get at the meat, using the file-like radula. Lots of insects also can drill through hard seed coverings. Weevils provide good examples; the females of one kind of weevil bore into acorns of various species of oak, chewing channels with mouthparts at the end of the long snout. They then lay eggs in the acorn and eventually the larvae feed on the nutritious material inside (which the oaks intended for their seedlings).

Pinching can do the trick too. The big claws on crabs and lobsters can crack the shells of other crabs and some molluscs. The hefty bill of a grosbeak can crack hard seeds and beetle carapaces.

The ultimate insult to armored or spiny defenses might be just ignoring them and swallowing the prey whole. Gulls and crows gulp down small molluscs and cough up the shells later. These birds can also swallow small sea urchins, somehow sliding that spiny body down their gullets (see photo). Hard, prickly sea stars can be crammed down a gull’s gullet too (photo). Ouch?

Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

A few vertebrates are defended by armor plates or spines. How do predators deal with these defenses? Armadillos carry a suit of hardened plates, and one kind of armadillo can roll up into an armored ball. How predators gain access to the vulnerable parts isn’t clear—perhaps a cougar or bear just gives the victim a big swat with a paw to tip it over and disorient it, exposing the vulnerable underparts?

When threatened, European hedgehogs roll up into a ball, erecting their spines to present a predator with a spiky mouthful. European badgers can wedge open the spiny ball and get at the tender belly. Foxes eat hedgehogs too, but they are said to be less successful in attempts to disarm them.

The spines of an American porcupine are a formidable defense—the beast turns its back with raised spines, brandishing its spiny tail. Many an ignorant or over-eager dog can attest to its effectiveness. If it can, the porcupine hides its face between tree roots or its paws. For good reason! A fisher commonly attacks a porcupine by grabbing and injuring its unprotected face, then flipping the damaged victim over to attack the belly and kill it. Other carnivores can use these techniques too.

There is no perfect defense.

Summer ending…

…and musings on seed dispersal

Summer seems to be closing down all too quickly. Bird song is past, replaced by the chips and squeaks of juvenile birds scuttling in the underbrush. Even the late-hatching mallard ducklings have their full-on adult plumage and no longer hang out with Mama all the time. Fireweed is already done blooming in most places (in very early August, yet!), a sure sign that fall is upon us.

Here and there we can see some late-season wildflower stragglers, putting out their last flowers of the year. However, a few wildflowers are just getting started: the little blue-flowered felwort (a.k.a. star gentian) along the Boy Scout trail in the grassy meadow near the slough; the purple-flowered northern gentian and the sky-blue gentian on Gold Ridge.

For many plants, this is a time for dispersal of seeds (although cottonwoods and most willows accomplished this earlier in the summer). Mature seed capsules have opened on fireweed, releasing the seeds with their fluffy, white parachutes to float on the breezes. Lupine seed pods have begun to pop open on warm days, scattering the ripe seeds that pitter-patter as they fall through the surrounding vegetation. All over town, the non-native mountain-ash offers its orange, fleshy fruits to willing avian foragers that gobble up the free lunch and excrete the seeds elsewhere.

The whole point of seed dispersal is to send a plant’s offspring away from the mother plant, landing in new sites where they may be able to germinate and grow. If all the seeds just dropped at mama’s feet, so to speak, the competition among those densely packed seedlings would be ferocious, and seed-eaters would be likely to come and demolish the lot in one go. So there are advantages to traveling, but it is always a sort of lottery: most seeds and juvenile plants die, landing in a bad site or picked off by a predator. On the whole, however, it seems to be better to disperse than to congregate.

Plants have evolved many different ways of dispersing their seeds. Here is just a sample, from species here in Southeast.

–By wind: Some seeds bear devices that can lift them on a puff of wind: the fluffy parachutes of fireweed, willow, cottonwood, and dandelion; the propeller-like blade of a twirling maple seed; the small flat wing around the seeds of alder, spruce, hemlock, and rattlebox. Orchid seeds are as small as fine dust, because they (unlike other seed plants) contain no stored material to nourish seedlings; so they easily waft away on a breeze.

fireweed-seed-dispersal-by-bob-armstrong
Fireweed seeds. Photo by Bob Armstrong

–By water: The seeds of the yellow pond lily are surrounded by a buoyant matrix that keeps the seeds afloat for a few days.

–By animal consumers: The succulent, fleshy fruits of blueberry, salmonberry, twisted stalk, mayflower, lingonberry, devil’s club, and crabapple are eaten by birds and bears, which digest the fruit and excrete or regurgitate the seeds.

–By animals that pick up seeds on fur or feathers (or socks): the prickly seed-heads of avens, the spiky seeds of some grasses, the micro-hooks on capsules (and stems and leaves) of bedstraw and the seeds of sweet-cicely.

–By explosive opening, ballistically shooting out the seeds forcefully: Lupine pods snap open; touch-me-not capsules fly open at a touch, expelling the seeds; mistletoe seeds are expelled with force (and may also sometimes get stuck on passing animals). Wild geranium holds its seeds in five small cups at the base of a long ‘crane’s bill’ with a hinge at the tip; when the mature seed container is dry, the hinge pops opens suddenly and flings seeds vigorously (with a backhand toss). Long ago, I measured the distance achieved in this way, for the eastern species of geranium, and found that seeds could travel at least thirty feet from a plant no more than twenty inches tall. Not bad.

–By shaking: Fern-leaf goldthread bears a whirligig of capsules, each with an opening near the end. If the stem or the capsules are jostled at just the right time and in the right way, a seed flies out. Foamflower puts its seeds in capsules that look like old-fashioned sugar-scoops, with the bottom part longer than the top part. Again, the right kind of jostling releases a seed, which gets an extra impetus from the lever-like action of the lower part of the scoop. Seeds of chocolate lily are stacked tightly in their capsules; the capsules split open and the seeds can be shaken out (they also have small wings that might give them a little glide).

–By unknown means: Some plants produce seeds with no evident means of dispersal, either on the seed itself or on the mother plant—no edible fruit, no hooks, no wings, no ballistics…These species generally have shorter dispersal distances than those with specific dispersal adaptations, so their seeds are likely to be more clustered than those of the other plants; but what are the ecological consequences of their more clustered distribution? Seed shakers probably do a little better. Ballistically dispersed seeds achieve a somewhat wider distribution, and both wind- and animal-dispersed seeds can travel far.

There are other ways for seeds to get around. As Darwin pointed out, they may ride in the mud on the feet of ducks. They may travel in the guts of herbivores that eat the greenery but don’t digest the seeds. Floods may wash them way downstream. These, however, are largely serendipitous events, not specific adaptations resulting from evolution; they may nevertheless be quite effective in moving seeds around.

The pattern of seed distribution around a parent plant is called a ‘seed shadow’. Most seed shadows exhibit a concentration of seeds relatively close to the parent with a long ‘tail’ of fewer seeds, extending to greater distances. Most studies of seed shadows have focused on distances that include the majority of the dispersed seeds. But the tail of the distribution cannot be ignored. It is much more difficult to measure, because there are fewer seeds at greater distances from the parent, and some of the distances can be very long indeed (miles!). But it is those far-travelling seeds that make it possible for plants to colonize new areas.

Here is a little natural history game to play, if you are inclined, as you walk the trails. Try to find as many seed dispersal mechanisms as you can; there are differences among habitats. Can you find plants that have other dispersal mechanisms, and how do they work? Think about other factors that influence the distance that seeds travel (such as the height from which the seed is released). And special kudos to anyone who can send me a good local photo of the seed container of northern geranium after it has flung out the seeds.