Dandelion seeds use ‘extraordinary’ technique to spread

Dandelions spread easily.
Dandelions spread easily.
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The humble dandelion is able to spread so easily because its seeds use an extremely efficient form of flight never previously observed in nature, scientists have found.

The common flower’s seeds have a parachute-shaped bundle of bristles, enabling them to travel distances of 1km or more propelled only by wind, the researchers said.

Their discovery may inspire the development of small drones which require little or no power to operate, which might be useful for tasks such as monitoring air pollution.

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After studying the behaviour of the seeds in a vertical wind tunnel, the team at the University of Edinburgh concluded that the common plant has a claim to be one of nature’s best natural fliers.

Their study said that while many wind-dispersed plants had evolved “ingenious ways” to lift their seeds, the technique used by the dandelion could be described as “extraordinary”.

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Despite the parachute structure of the seeds being largely made up of empty space, the researchers found that its design created a ring-shaped air bubble which slowed their descent to the ground.

This type of air bubble, which scientists have dubbed the “separated vortex ring”, has not been observed before and appears to be four times more efficient that a conventional parachute design.

They found that the bubble is stabilised by the air flowing through it as the seed descends, with the spacing of the dandelion seeds’ bristles proving crucial to this process.

“Taking a closer look at the ingenious structures in nature - like the dandelion’s parachute - can reveal novel insights,” said Dr Cathal Cummins of the university’s schools of biological sciences and engineering, who led the study.

“We found a natural solution for flight that minimises the material and energy costs, which can be applied to engineering of sustainable technology.”

The study, published in the scientific journal Nature yesterday, was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Royal Society.