elephant seeds

Ms Andron, 27, travels to Ecuador twice a year to oversee the production of the tagua that is done by seven local women at a cooperative.

He now sells to 70 countries, including China, Japan and Singapore, as tagua grows in popularity as an alternative to ivory.

It may sound bizarre, but the tusks from woolly mammoths that died tens of thousands of years ago are mined on a regular basis. While official figures are not available, an estimated 60 tonnes of mammoth ivory is harvested each year.

So what exactly is Mr Heerma van Voss, a 48-year-old Dutchman, doing to help protect the African elephant? He sells seeds.

While the worldwide sale of new ivory was outlawed in 1989, the animals are still being slaughtered to fuel an illegal trade led by continuing demand in China.

Elephant plant.

From his base in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, Mr Heerma van Voss's company Naya Nayon has been exporting tagua for 16 years, and he says that sales are booming.

Mammoth ivory sold for an average $350 a kg in 2014, according to the charity Save the Elephants. This is about a third of the price of elephant ivory, but giant mammoth tusks in good condition can fetch far more.

Very much liking the country he decided to stay and set up a business, launching Naya Nayon to make and export wooden furniture. Then a year later he had a phone call.

While Mr Heerma van Voss is preparing for a big upturn in exports to China, tagua does face two hurdles in the country.

Hongxiang Huang, a Chinese journalist and anti-ivory campaigner, explains: "As people become wealthier they want to buy luxury items, and ivory is one of the many things that people desire. This is the situation in China."

While Nodova's largest markets are France and the UK, it sells to stores across Asia and Ms Andron says that the forthcoming blanket ban on ivory sales in China offers a huge opportunity.

Marion Andron is co-owner of French jewellers Nodova, which sold more than 300,000 euros ($320,000; £256,000) of tagua jewellery last year.

And like ivory, tagua can be polished and carved, and turned into ornate carvings or jewellery.

"In the beginning of 2001, a France-based British lady contacted me if I could supply hand carved tagua figurines," he says.

However, tagua fell into obscurity, so much so that Mr Heerma van Voss had never heard of it when he first visited Ecuador in 2000.

Hairy tale.

Firstly, even the longest tagua seeds are much shorter than the average elephant tusk, which limits the size of the ornaments that can be made from the material. And secondly, it lacks ivory's exclusivity.

Using tagua as a substitute for ivory is nothing new. Indeed exports to Europe began in the 19th Century in order to meet the demand for an ivory-like raw material. This was used to produce ornamental items such as buttons, chess pieces, and decorative handles for canes.

John Frederick Walker, an expert on ivory, says: "Master carvers tend to prefer elephant ivory because fresh elephant ivory is easier to carve.

"But in fact, you can make wonderful things from mammoth ivory."

Mr Heerma van Voss now sells $200,000 (£160,000) worth of tagua per year that he buys from farmers. He and his four members of staff dry and slice the seeds ready to be turned into jewellery, with France being his largest market.

Numbers of elephants in the wild are still falling; it's estimated 100 of them are killed by poachers every day for their tusks to meet the continuing demand for ivory.

"Anyhow, you listen to clients to make a company work. So I did it, and I started to like the tagua and slowly it took off.

And with China pledging to end its domestic trade in elephant tusks by the end of this year, Mr van Voss is hopeful that demand is going to jump even further.

"I always joke that I am a forced ecologist, but I actually really like this product."

They are the off-white coloured seeds of six species of palm trees. They can reach up to 9cm (3.5 inches) in length and when dried become very hard indeed. So hard in fact that they are also known as "vegetable ivory".

In fact, the scientific name for the six species of palm trees that produce tagua is Phytelephas, which means elephant plant, a nod to the ivory-like quality of the seeds.

Yes, you read that correctly, but these aren't any old seeds, they are instead rather special ones from South America called tagua.

There are now only around 415,000 African elephants across the continent, down from as many as five million a century ago, according to global campaign group WWF (formerly known as the World Wide Fund for Nature).

The sliced tagua typically retails for $30 a kg, while the raw seeds sell for $6 a kg. By contrast, a kilogramme of ivory is worth as much as $1,100 in China.

For buyers wanting an alternative to elephant ivory that still comes from a mammal but is ethically sourced, the answer comes from under the frozen Siberian tundra in the north east of Russia.

This study was highlighted in Science Magazine and gave a detailed account of how Bunney came to this conclusion. She first tracked how long seeds take to digest in an elephant’s 20-meter-long intestines. She determined it took 33 hours for the first seeds to appear in the dung and as long as 96 hours for the last seeds to appear. She next used the collaring data from Elephants Alive to determine how much distance elephant’s cover in that time period.

Elephants truly are an architect species capable of modifying habitats for the benefit of different plants and animals on both a local and wide scale. Another term used for elephants is a keystone species in cases where their presence has a strong influence on other species and where their removal is likely to have a correspondingly strong, even cascading effect on the structure and function of ecosystems.

Not only do elephants carry these seeds such great distances, but each elephant may deposit up to 3,200 seeds a day meaning that the genetic diversity of many tree species is maintained when their seeds are scattered by elephants.

Her findings suggest that for any given fruit, an elephant would move half the seeds 2.5 kilometers from where they were eaten, 1% of seeds would move farther than 20 kilometers and in extreme cases a seed could travel up to 65 kilometers, such as when male elephants take long treks searching for a mate.

According to a recent study published in Biotropica entitled seed dispersal kernel of the largest surviving megaherbivore—the African savanna elephant by Katherine Bunney, the African savanna elephant holds the prize for longest distance mover of seeds with seeds being dispersed up to 65 kilometers.

Mara Elephant Project knows that the key to a healthy greater Mara ecosystem is completely dependent on the protection of elephants.

Days later and miles away, the Triceratops empties its bowels, sowing the seeds of the plants it ate, complete with fertilizer, in more far-flung soil than could be reached without it.

“When we look at the natural world today, the diversity and intimacy of the close symbiotic relationships between plants and animals that pollinate flowers and disperse seeds is just staggering,” Dr. Hall said.

Of course, it would be wonderful if scientists could plunge elbow deep into real dino dung, à la Ellie Sattler in “Jurassic Park.” Alas, the finer details of these complex ecosystems will most likely remain shrouded in mystery and speculation.

“I know from modern ecosystems that large animals are important seed dispersers,” Dr. Perry said. “I thought, I’ve got all the pieces: What’s the most massive animal ever and how far might it have moved seeds?”

By Becky Ferreira.

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Dr. Perry’s study is “a great example of how with clever lateral thinking, a scientist can come up with ways of getting insight into a question that — at face value — could only be answered with a time machine,” said John Hall, a plant ecologist at the University of Queensland and an expert on cycad plants.

George Perry, a forest ecologist at the University of Auckland who studies human pressures on seed dispersal, got to thinking about this topic during New Zealand’s coronavirus lockdowns.

Dr. Perry’s simulations depend on two main factors: the speed of a dinosaur and the amount of time it retains seeds before eliminating them. It’s challenging to pin down these values because of the limitations of the fossil record. That said, body mass is linked to walking speed and seed retention time in modern animals, which can be used as a rough analog for past ecosystems.

“What we really want to be able to do is get a GPS tracker and put it on a dinosaur and follow it around, but we can’t do that,” Dr. Perry said. For this reason, the study’s assumptions are “reasonably conservative,” he added.

Large animals typically travel farther, and retain seeds longer, compared with smaller animals. But extremely massive dinosaurs, such as the 90-ton Argentinosaurus, may have been slower than midsize herbivores. That means grazers like Triceratops were probably the most effective dispersers of seeds because of their more modest body sizes yet still prodigious appetites.

In a lush, bygone landscape, a hungry Triceratops munches on low-lying ferns and cone-bearing cycad plants to power its 10-ton frame. The animal swallows huge mouthfuls of roughage, seeds and all, before ambling off in search of new feeding grounds.

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“Seed dispersal potentials of extinct animals are of great importance, and Dr. Perry estimated those of dinosaurs in a sensible way,” said Tetsuro Yoshikawa, a plant ecologist at the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan who has published research on this topic.

In a study published Wednesday in Biology Letters, Dr. Perry laid out a framework for calculating how far dinosaurs — ranging in weight from roughly 20 pounds to 90 tons — might have carried the seeds of prehistoric plants. He found that dinosaurs such as Triceratops or Stegosaurus had the right mix of size and speed to deposit seeds between three and 20 miles from parent plants. That’s comparable to the African bush elephant, which transports seeds across a mile and a half on average, but can move them as far as 40 miles.

The dispersal of plant seeds within the bodies of animals, known as zoochory, is so common in modern ecosystems that plants often tailor their fruits and flowers to appeal to specific carriers. Fossils of poop and gut contents indicate that plant seeds also hitched rides in dinosaur bellies, though it’s unclear if these relationships were as widespread and sophisticated as they are today.

It’s not just large size and something pointy near their faces.

“Since extant terrestrial animals, such as elephants and bears, can transport seeds several kilometers in some cases, it is possible for large-sized dinosaurs to have similar potentials.”