Editor's note: as part of our Massive training, we ask authors to write about one concept for a few different audiences. It's inspired by one of our favorite science storytelling series: Wired's One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty video series. Here's one example of the result of this exercise!
Audience: a five year-old
Has your dog ever come home with a seed stuck to its fur, or have you ever thrown out an apple core because you don’t want to eat the seeds? These are both forms of seed dispersal, the movement of seeds to new homes away from their parents. Because seeds can’t walk on their own, sometimes they’re moved by the wind, sometimes by big animals, and sometimes by tiny animals, like ants. Some seeds have a gooey attachment that smells like yummy dead insects to hungry ants. Ants take their new food home to their nest, and the seed goes along for the ride, ending up in a new location where it has a higher chance of surviving and growing into a big plant.
Audience: a college student studying your field
Across the world, different plants have evolved seeds that rely on small but strong ants for movement. The distances ants transport these seeds are often small, under a meter or so, but the benefits can be quite large, as ant nests are often rich in nutrients and safe from predators. However, not all ant species provide obvious benefits to these plants, and some actually exploit the system, eating the juicy bits of the seed without dispersing it, or even worse, eating and killing the entire seed. This variation provides scientists with plenty of questions about seed dispersal, mutualism, and ecology.
Audience: someone with a PhD in your field
Seed dispersal is an important step in most plants’ life cycles, profoundly affecting fitness by determining many of the conditions in which new generations will germinate and grow. Different plants have evolved different strategies for seed dispersal, but one is particularly striking for its specificity of syndrome yet ubiquity across plant families, continents, and habitats. Seeds of around 11,000 species exhibit the same suite of traits that attract ants, which then disperse them with varying degrees of faithfulness. For something so common, we still have much to learn about the different evolutionary pressures that led to such convergent evolution.