Self-Digging Seeds

Some plants in the Pelargonium family produce seeds with long helical tails. These appendages, formally known as awns, are humidity-sensitive. On humid nights or after rainfall, the awn begins to straighten. With its end anchored on the ground, this unfurling spins the seed and helps it burrow into the soil. A study looking at the physics of this system found that rotating reduces the drag a burrowing seed experiences in a granular material. Normally much of the force that opposes motion into a granular material is the result of intergranular contacts creating what are known as force chains. (Many science museums have great displays that visualize force chains.) The rotating seed drags grains near its surface along with it, helping to break up the force chains and reduce resistance. (Image and research credit: W. Jung et al., source)

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