Post-dispersal seed predation and the establishment of vertebrate dispersed plants in Mediterranean scrublands
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- Hulme, P. Oecologia (1997) 111: 91. doi:10.1007/s004420050212
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The post-dispersal fate of seeds and fruit (diaspores) of three vertebrate-dispersed trees, Crataegus monogyna, Prunus mahaleb and Taxus baccata, was studied in the Andalusian highlands, south-eastern Spain. Exclosures were used to quantify separately the impact of vertebrates and invertebrates on seed removal in relation to diaspore density and microhabitat. The three plant species showed marked differences in the percentage of diaspores removed, ranging from only 5% for C. monogyna to 87% for T. baccata. Although chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs) fed on diaspores, rodents (Apodemus sylvaticus) were the main vertebrate removers of seed and fruit. Two species of ant (Cataglyphis velox and Aphaenogaster iberica) were the only invertebrates observed to remove diaspores. However, the impact of ants was strongly seasonal and they only removed P. mahaleb fruit to any significant extent. While removal of seed by rodents was equivalent to predation, ants were responsible for secondary dispersal. However, their role was limited to infrequent, small-scale redistribution of fruit in the vicinity of parent trees. Rodents and ants differed in their use of different microhabitats. Rodents foraged mostly beneath trees and low shrubs and avoided open areas while the reverse was true of ants. Thus, patterns of post-dispersal seed removal will be contigent on the relative abundance and distribution of ants and rodents. Studies which neglect to quantify separately the impacts of these two guilds of seed removers may fail to elucidate the mechanisms underlying patterns of post-dispersal seed removal. The coincidence of both increased seed deposition by the main avian dispersers (Turdus spp.) and increased seed predation with increasing vegetation height suggested that selection pressures other than post-dispersal seed predation shape the spatial pattern of seed dispersal. Rather than providing a means of escaping post-dispersal seed predators, dispersal appears to direct seeds to microhabitats most suitable for seedling survival. Nevertheless, the reliance of most vertebrate-dispersed trees on regeneration by seed and the absence of persistent soil seed banks imply that post-dispersal seed predators may exert a strong influence on the demography of the plants whose seeds they consume. Even where microsites are limited, the coincidence of the most suitable microhabitats for seedling establishment with those where seed predation is highest provide a means by which selective seed predators can influence community composition.