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How a Chestnut Fronted Macaw photo led to a scientific discovery

Kurt Holle

In 2011, scientists noticed something strange in one of Gary Bartollotis macaw photos. Gary had just passed away, and his wife had sent his colleagues a set of 10 photos taken in Brazil. One of them had a flying Chestnut-fronted Macaw (Ara severus) carrying a seed in his beak.

Why is that strange and what did it lead to?

Macaws and parrots are well known seed predators. This means they cheat evolution. Plants invest a ton of energy in fruit production. The reason they pack hard to find minerals and energy rich carbs into fruit is because they want animals to eat them! They want animals to eat fruit because then animals will digest and defecate the seeds, hopefully many miles away.


Because seeds that fall beneath the mother tree have a high probabily of dying from pathogens that will infest that area because of they high density of saplings. So plants want seedlings to go far from the mother tree. 

Most birds and mammals happily comply. But parrots and macaws cheat. They eat the seeds!

So when scientists noticed a Chestnut-fronted macaw carrying a seed on its beak , they found it strange. They went on to call on biologists from South America to send them their own observations of parrots carrying seeds. Surprisingly, they discovered it was not unusual: 16 parrot and macaw species were dispersed 98 different tree species 28 times.  

I love this story. It speaks of how much we can learn through random photos in todays world. Imagine all the information that is waiting to be extracted from the zillions of photos taken on a daily basis by visitors to the Amazon.


Chestnut Fronted Macaw Photo by Lianne Herbruck

 Heres the link to the paper!

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