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Earth Notes: Seeds That Fly, Float, or Hitchhike

The Designed to Move exhibit on display the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.
Melissa Sevigny
The Designed to Move exhibit on display the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.

Plants appear to be fixed in place. But the seeds that sprouted them are designed to move. That’s the heart of the idea behind a new exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.

Vivid up-close photographs by Taylor James show desert seeds in microscopic detail, revealing wings, hooks, and other structures that allow them to float, fly, or hitchhike to new locations.

For example, the seeds of a Western flower called filaree wind up like springs until they explosively hurl themselves from their mother plant. The spear-shaped tip of the seed corkscrews into the ground. Effectively, they plant themselves.

Or take devil’s claw, which produces an enormous seedpod with two pronged hooks. Scientists believe the oversized design is left over from days when giant sloths roamed the landscape. Nowadays, devil’s claw is more likely to hook onto the feet of cattle or people. And it’s been cultivated for generations by Indigenous peoples of the Southwest such as the Havasupai and Hualapai.

Another ingenious way seeds get from place to place is in the bellies of animals. Rattlesnakes eat rodents that have stuffed their cheeks with seeds. Those seeds emerge from the snake’s digestive system intact and ready to sprout, along with a blob of fertilizer to get them started.

The exhibit “Designed to Move” was created by the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University and will remain on display at the Museum of Northern Arizona until spring of next year.

This Earth Note was written by Melissa Sevigny produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program of Northern Arizona University. 

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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