Experimental cookies seeds

This Animal Bit onto ‘Science Cookies’ and Revealed Data

An experiment using artificial seeds, or ‘cookies,’ with peanuts hidden inside provided valuable information about how mammals make seed dispersal decisions based on certain seed traits.

An experiment using artificial seeds, or ‘cookies,’ with peanuts hidden inside provided valuable information about how mammals make seed dispersal decisions based on certain seed traits. (Yesenia Carrero /UConn Illustration)

Much like the squirrels and chipmunks in deciduous climates, there is a cat-sized creature in tropical regions that practices scatter hoarding – burying the seeds they find if they don’t eat them right away.

A team of University of Connecticut researchers recently dug into the seed decision-making process of a rodent in Costa Rica, called an agouti, in order to learn more about their seed dispersal activities. In forest ecosystems, these animals contribute substantially to seed survival and new tree growth.

“Agoutis find seeds and either eat or bury them, but what is their thought process? Is it random?” says Erin Kuprewicz, who led the research with Carlos García‐Robledo, both assistant professors of ecology and evolutionary biology.

It turns out that these cute “guinea pigs on stilts” are making a number of complex decisions when deciding to eat or scatter-hoard seeds.

Researchers pursued the investigation with a half-baked idea: Make polymer clay artificial seeds, or “cookies,” of various sizes, with peanuts hidden inside, and affix bright pink strings onto them. Then distribute the “cookies” and track their dispersal by locating the strings after the agoutis have carried them off.

Some of the cookies also had a coating of bitter-tasting tannins, so the researchers could learn if the agoutis have taste preferences.

The agoutis bit.

The researchers found that agoutis hid the cookies preferentially, depending on size. Since larger seeds require more energy to carry further for hoarding, the number of seeds dispersed furthest was fewer than that of small seeds eaten closer to the source.

They also found that cookies coated in bitter-tasting tannins didn’t deter the hungry rodents, which belong to the genus Dasyprocta.

“We weren’t sure if the agoutis would be interested in these artificial seeds,” says Kuprewicz, “but they were, and we were able to track what they did with them in exceptional detail.”

The findings, published in the journal Ecosphere, made waves in social media because of the clever use of creations dubbed “science cookies.”

Kuprewicz says the experiment provided valuable information about how mammals make seed dispersal decisions based on certain seed traits. “These choices can scale up dramatically to affect the species compositions of tropical forests and the animal and plant communities that live there,” she says.

The study was done in southern Costa Rica between August 2014 and 2015, on the grounds of the Wilson Botanical Garden. Funding for this work was provided by the Organization for Tropical Studies.

“Score! I’m going to hide this one so no one finds it!” (Erin Kuprewicz/UConn Video)

Experimental cookies seeds

Experiment 1: March 3, 2009

Approximately 3 cups potting soil
1 t baking powder
1 T salt
2 T sugar
2 T oil
3/4 c water

Mix, form into cookies, bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees.

Results: Unsuccessful. None of the ingredients served to bind the soil together, and cookies fell apart immediately.

Ways to improve: The soil in Haiti appears to have some clay content, and is very fine, probably ground or somehow “milled” beyond its natural state. When the weather dries out a bit, I’ll try to use soil with clay content. I would also prefer using soil that has not been “enriched” with chicken poop, bat guano, etc.

Experiment 2, March 23, 2009

1/4 cup sodium bentonite
3/4 cup very hot water
1/2 t salt
1/2 t baking powder
1/4 cup white sugar
1/8 cup powdered sugar

Mix, adding more bentonite if necessary. Form cookies using two teaspoons. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Results: More successful than previous attempt, with cookies holding their shape, cooking evenly, and even rising slightly from the baking powder (or bentonite’s own capcity for absorbing water).

These cookies are technically edible, although they have a rubbery texture. Their taste is not at all unpleasant, with the sugar and salt giving them a sweet, tangy taste. I found the cookie I ate to be have a comforting slow dissolve that tasted how geophagists describe their earth, like the ground after a hard rain. Small pieces of the bentonite refuse to dissolve and crunch around between the teeth, though not in an unpleasant way.

Experiment 3, April 16, 2009

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup Calcium Bentonite Dry Powder Clay
1 egg, beaten
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. soda
1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 cup 3-Minute Oatmeal

Cream butter, adding sugar gradually and mix well. Mix soda, flour and clay and add to creamed mixture. Next add oats. Form into small balls and bake at 375º F. for 10-15 minutes. Makes 2 doz.

This time, I am making a more conventional cookie. I have changed the recipe from the one posted on the aboutclay website, halving it, but also doubling the amount of bentonite clay to give the cookies a more clay-like taste and color.

Previous experiments with mud and straight clay have taught me that baking without any binding agents, starches, or flours is very difficult! I would like to present cookies that are actually edible, if not during the entire installation, at least at the opening. I think these oatmeal-based clay cookies are the best option.

They are definitely the best of the three cookies I’ve tried so far. They’re sweet and edible, but the extra clay makes them just gritty enough to taste different from regular oatmeal cookies.

Experimental Cookies

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