The ancient cycad lineage has been around since before the age of the dinosaurs. More recently, cycads also co-existed with large herbivorous mammals, such as the ice age megafauna that only went extinct a few tens of thousands of years ago. Cycads that are living today have large, heavy seeds with a fleshy outer coating that suggests they rely on large bodied fruit-eating animals to disperse their seeds. Yet there is little evidence that they are eaten and dispersed by today's larger-bodied animals, such as emus or elephants. If these plants are adapted for dispersal by a set of animals that has been missing from Earth's fauna for tens of thousands of years, then how can they still be around today? A new study proposes that the clumped dispersal mechanism these ancient plants most likely relied upon still serves them well today.
Fossil cycads are recorded from 280 million years ago around the time coniferous forests first arose. The ecological distribution pattern of many living cycads today suggests they have limited and ineffectual seed dispersal. For example, Macrozamia miquelii, a cycad endemic to Australia, is found in highly clumped, dense, numbers, where it dominates the understory. Moreover, large areas of seemingly suitable habitat often separate populations from each other. These patterns suggest that few to none of the seeds are being dispersed large distances away from parent plants, one of the long-standing tenets of the advantages of seed dispersal.