These greedy birds always go for the most expensive snack on the menu


Patagonian birds flock to truffles like these for a delicious gourmet meal.

Matthew E. Smith

When I am handed a restaurant menu, the first thing I do is look for anything that mentions truffles. Truffle risotto, truffle fries, truffle aioli, you name it. It turns out that I am not alone. A few Patagonian birds seem to do the same as they roam the forest for dinner.

Of course, there is already some evidence that mammals besides humans enjoy umami, often nutty, mushrooms. Animals can help keep our pasta adorned treat alive by scattering truffle seeds when they drop droppings into the wild. And now researchers at the University of Florida have published a study it shows that feathered creatures can’t stay away from luxury either.

But the study, published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, says these gourmets chucao tapaculos and black-throated huet-huets feast on truffles that aren’t as tangy as the type we know and love. In fact, there are many species of truffles that are completely different from what you will find on the shelves in the pantry at Eleven Madison Park. The ones these birds seek would probably not please us and look like brightly colored berries.

According to lead author Matthew E. Smith, associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Florida, the discovery of truffles as a favorite food of these birds emerged during one of his previous research projects in Patagonia. .

“We are working in the forest, raking the ground and digging up the truffles, and we notice that these birds continue to follow us and check the areas where we disturbed the ground,” he said. in a report.

“Then we find truffles with pieces torn off,” he continued. Marcos Caiafa, the study’s first author, “even saw a bird eating a truffle right in front of it. All of this made us wonder if these birds hunt truffles?” Caiafa, a researcher in the same department at the University of Florida, had a special front row seat for a little bird munching on gourmet cuisine.

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Fancy bird n ° 1, a tapaculo chucao.

Neil Bowman / Getty Images

After their surprising experience watching the flying creatures search for and consume the mushroom snack, Caiafa and Smith deepened the mystery. They examined the bird droppings to see if any truffle DNA was present.

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Fancy bird n ° 2, a black-throated huet-huet.

Cagan Hakki Sekercioglu / Getty Images

“DNA-based food analysis is exciting because it provides new information on interactions between organisms that would otherwise be difficult to observe directly,” said Michelle Jusino, one of the co-authors of the study and former researcher in Smith’s lab.

“Because fecal sampling does not negatively impact target species, I think these methods are invaluable for studying and protecting common and rare species in the future,” Jusino said.

After analysis, it was shown that 42% of the chucao tapaculo droppings and 38% of the huet-huet droppings had concrete DNA evidence of truffles – the birds had clearly munched on the colorful and slightly earthy treats. Next, the team used a fluorescence microscope to check if the spores found in the stool were still viable. They were. This means that birds help mammals promote the spread of the truffle by shedding spores when they defecate.

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Truffles in the Patagonian forest.

Matthew E. Smith

Researchers also claim that these fungi play an important role in forest ecosystems: they help colonize tree roots.

“These fungi form mycorrhizae, a relationship in which the fungus helps the plant absorb nutrients in exchange for the plant’s sugars,” Caiafa explained. Going forward, the team aims to decode why the studied truffles aesthetically resemble shiny berries. They suspect this is due to an evolutionary adaptation that better attracts high-end gourmet birds.


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