Animal gourmet ingredient is a daily snack for these forest birds

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

Matthew E. Smith

When I get handed out a restaurant menu, the first thing I do is scan for anything that mentions truffles. Truffle risotto, truffle fries, truffle aioli, you name it. It turns out that I’m not alone. A few Patagonian birds appear to do the same when exploring the forest for dinner.

Of course, there are already signs that mammals in addition to humans enjoy the often nutty umami mushrooms. Animals can help keep our pasta-sniffing treat alive by spreading truffle seeds when they lose feces in the wild. And now, researchers from the University of Florida have published a study showing feathered creatures can’t stay away from luxury either.

But the study, published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, says that these gastronomic chucao tapaculos and black-necked hatt-huets feast on truffles that are not as sharp as the type we know and love. In fact, there are quite a few species of truffles that are completely different from the kind you find on Eleven Madison Park’s pantry shelves. The ones these birds seek out would probably not appeal to us and look like colorful berries.

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

“We are working in the forest, tearing up the ground and digging up the truffles, and we notice that these birds keep following us around and checking the areas where we had disturbed the ground,” he said in a statement.

“Then we find truffles with pieces chopped out of them,” he continued. Marcos Caiafa, first author of the study, “even saw a bird eating a truffle right in front of it. All this made us ask, are these birds hunting for truffles?” Caiafa, a researcher in the same department at the University of Florida, had a special seat in the front row for a small bird that ate at the gourmet kitchen.

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Fancy bird No. 1, a chucao tapaculo.

Neil Bowman / Getty Images

After their surprising experience of watching the flying creatures search for and ingest the mushroom-like snack, Caiafa and Smith dug deeper into the mystery. They examined the birds’ feces to see if truffle DNA was present.

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Fancy bird # 2, a black-necked hat-hat.

Cagan Hakki Sekercioglu / Getty Images

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

“Because stool sampling does not adversely affect the target species, I believe these methods are invaluable for studying and protecting both common and rare species in the future,” Jusino said.

Analysis showed that 42% of the chucao tapaculo pedigree and 38% of the hatt-huet pedigree had concrete DNA evidence of truffles – the birds had clearly munched on the colorful, mildly earthy treats. The team then used a fluorescent microscope to check if the spores found in the feces were still viable. They were. This means that the birds help mammals drive truffle distribution by spreading spores when they defecate.

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Truffles in the Patagonian forest.

Matthew E. Smith

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

“These fungi form mycorrhiza, a condition in which the fungus helps the plant absorb nutrients in exchange for sugar from the plant,” Caiafa explained. Going forward, the team aims to decode why the truffles studied look like bright berries aesthetically. They suspect it is due to an evolutionary adaptation that better attracts the advanced foodie birds.

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