When it comes to goats, the internet loves to see pictures of them climbing things, which includes trees, an essential part of their grazing and foraging behavior in arid places such as Morocco. But if tree-climbing goats themselves don’t seem very interesting, consider that their actions are directly related to one of the world’s currently most popular bodycare ingredients, argan oil, and that these tree-climbing caprine creatures help replant argan forests by spitting out the seeds with their cud.
In regions where food sources are sparse, and edible fruits and leaves are only found suspended above the ground in trees, being able to climb up trees to reach them is an invaluable skill, and one that is not only accepted by goatherds, but is also actively encouraged. In Morocco, for example, where less than 12 inches of annual rainfall is expected, the argan tree is native and can have ample forage for goats, but instead of being at ground level, is on branches that rise some 8 to 10 meters above the earth. To assist their goat charges, herders typically assist their kid goats in learning to climb trees to feed, and even occasionally prune the argan trees to better enable climbing.
Although much of the world has only learned about argan oil fairly recently, as an additive to haircare and body emollients, argan trees have served an important role in Morocco and nearby regions for a long time, and have traditionally supplied locals with cooking oil, firewood, livestock fodder, and medicine. The oil is extracted from the kernel of the argan fruit, which must be removed before processing, and according to some accounts is done by Berbers who feed the fruit to their goats and then collect the kernels from their manure. However, a recent study not only dispels that idea, at least to some degree, and finds that the tree-climbing goats are an essential part of the argan tree’s seed dispersal method.
Researchers found that instead of eating the fruit whole and defecating the kernels, as many animals are known to do (a mechanism called endozoochory), and which may offer additional benefits to the seeds, goats regurgitated and spit out the seeds (which are still viable) from their cud. According to the study, which was recently published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, free-ranging ruminants, such as the tree-climbing goats, “plus their wild counterparts are certainly able to mobilize large quantities of viable seeds,” and to do so at a far distance from the ‘mother’ trees “because seeds remain in the rumen for hours or days.”
“Importantly, the seeds of some species are unlikely to survive passage through the ruminant lower digestive tract so that spitting from the cud may represent their only, or at least their main, dispersal mechanism. It is therefore essential to investigate the effectiveness of this overlooked mechanism of seed dispersal in various habitats and systems.” – Tree-climbing goats disperse seeds during rumination
So the next time you squirt that argan conditioner into your hair, remember that tree-climbing goats may be responsible for keeping the argan forests growing.
Andrea Devon Bertoli
This story makes me so happy!