, Volume 210, Issue 2, pp 291-301
Date: 27 Mar 2010

Potential for ants and vertebrate predators to shape seed-dispersal dynamics of the invasive thistles Cirsium arvense and Carduus nutans in their introduced range (North America)

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The population dynamics of invasive plants are influenced by positive and negative associations formed with members of the fauna present in the introduced range. For example, mutualistic associations formed with pollinators or seed dispersers may facilitate invasion, but reduced fitness from attack by native herbivores can also suppress it. Since population expansion depends on effective seed dispersal, interactions with seed dispersers and predators in a plant species introduced range may be of particular importance. We explored the relative contributions of potential seed dispersers (ants) and vertebrate predators (rodents and birds) to seed removal of two diplochorous (i.e., wind- and ant-dispersed), invasive thistles, Cirsium arvense and Carduus nutans, in Colorado, USA. We also conducted behavior trials to explore the potential of different ant species to disperse seeds, and we quantified which potential ant dispersers were prevalent at our study locations. Both ants and vertebrate predators removed significant amounts of C. arvense and C. nutans seed, with the relative proportion of seed removed by each guild varying by location. The behavior trials revealed clear seed preferences among three ant species as well as differences in the foragers’ abilities to move seeds. In addition, two ant species that acted as potential dispersal agents were dominant at the study locations. Since local conditions in part determined whether dispersers or predators removed more seed, it is possible that some thistle populations benefit from a net dispersal effect, while others suffer proportionally more predation. Additionally, because the effectiveness of potential ant dispersers is taxon-specific, changes in ant community composition could affect the seed-dispersal dynamics of these thistles. Until now, most studies describing dispersal dynamics in C. arvense and C. nutans have focused on primary dispersal by wind or pre-dispersal seed predation by insects. Our findings suggest that animal-mediated dispersal and post-dispersal seed predation deserve further consideration.