An interdisciplinary group of researchers proposes a new way of thinking about some of the interactions between species, classifying a diverse group of plants, animals and fungi as “nature’s chefs”. Specifically, nature’s chefs are organisms that provide food—or the illusion of food—to other organisms. The concept offers a new perspective on interactions between species, which can inform how people think about food across the tree of life as well as disparate research disciplines.
“There are many ways to classify species interactions,” says Brad Taylor, corresponding author of a paper on the new concept and associate professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University. “Mutuals interact with other species for their own benefit. Parasites depend on other species, but other species do not benefit from them. Predators devour other species. But the concept of ‘nature’s chef’ extends to members of all these groups, with the factor being that the relevant interactions are all dependent on food.” – or the temptation of food.
“The idea for nature’s chefs arose at an interdisciplinary meeting when, in response to an explanation of fruit evolution, one chef said, ‘You mean to say, fruits are nature’s chefs,’” says co-author Rob Dunn, professor of applied ecology at NC State. The idea is to review and synthesize what is known about food preparation and sharing across the animal, plant and fungal kingdoms.”
The research team eventually identified three ways in which species can produce or prepare food for other organisms: as food, drinks, or as food-like food.
Nature’s chefs sometimes prepare food for other creatures of the same species, such as the nuptial food gifts some species use to attract mates. For example, male crickets are a nuptial food gift to females that is an important source of nitrogen for females and their eggs.
“Although it may seem strange, or even disgusting, to use crickets and chefs in the same sentence, a romantic dinner for two may be closer to the outcome many nature chefs strive for,” says Taylor.
Nature’s chefs may also prepare food for organisms of various species, such as the fruits produced by many plants to attract animals to disperse their seeds.
“It’s also worth noting that nature’s chefs include humans, and there are striking similarities between human and nonhuman chefs,” says Taylor. “For example, human chefs use attractive food paint or billboards to attract diners, while evolutionary processes have led plants to use flowers as advertising for their nectar.”
The concept of nature chefs also distinguishes organisms that produce “fair meals” versus organisms that produce “misinformed meals”, such as magic or food imitations.
Fruit is a good example of an honest meal—animals (including humans) are able to consume and benefit from the fleshy, starchy substances that surround the seeds. Meanwhile, plants benefit when animals consume or excrete seeds away from the parent plant, reducing inbreeding, competition, predation, and parasitism that can be higher near the parent plant.
On the other hand, snapping turtles are an example of a species that uses food imitation to deceive those who want to eat it. The muscular turtle’s tongue has an appendix that looks a lot like a waterworm. The fake worm lures the worm-eating organisms into the surprised turtle’s mouth, making it prey for the turtle. In the context of nature’s chefs, this is a predator-prey interaction affected by one species, the chef, which prepares a decoy meal to obtain its food.
Discussions among members of the research team from various disciplines led to several discoveries that strengthened the concept of nature’s chefs, particularly with regard to their similarities to human chefs.
“For example, chefs and ecologists were intrigued that both human and non-human chefs alter the viscosity of liquids to attract different patrons,” says Taylor. “Similarly, nature’s chefs, both human and nonhuman, vary the density of foods to attract diners.”
The researchers also identified several research questions for future exploration. For example, how does the availability of local or seasonal ingredients influence the behavior of nature’s chefs? We know that humans, and some plants and fungi, eat warm food as part of meal preparation. How common is that? Why are there so few fruits that smell or taste like meat?
The researchers hope that the concept of Nature’s Chefs will stimulate further discussion, learning, and innovation among a diverse group of people interested in food, drink, and what food is like.
“Nature’s chefs can provide another way to organize our amazingly diverse world and also a way to bring together people from different disciplines to make new discoveries,” says Taylor.
The paper has been published in the journal biology.
Brad W. Taylor et al., Nature’s Chefs: Unifying the Hidden Diversity of Food-Making and Preparing Species Across the Tree of Life, biology (2023). DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biad026
the quote: Nature’s Chefs: Scientists suggest food-making as a way to understand species interactions (2023, April 19) Retrieved April 19, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-04-nature-chefs-scientists-food-making-species . html
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