Passage through bird guts causes interspecific differences in seed germination characteristics
- 1 Seed germination characteristics are often modified after seeds are ingested by frugivores. Factors that are intrinsic either to the plant or to the frugivore’s digestive tract are responsible for the great variation observed in germination response.
- 2 Our objectives were to determine whether and how the seed germination patterns of five common western Mediterranean plant species are affected by seed passage through the guts of their major dispersers, and to elucidate the mechanism by which such patterns are changed.
- 3 We used captive birds (Turdus merula and Sylvia melanocephala) to obtain ingested seeds and compared their germination rate (speed) and germinability (final percent germination) with those of controls (uningested, pulp-removed seeds), controlling for seed age, size and source. Germination was monitored for 2 years in an experimental garden. We evaluated the possible changes in seed traits after ingestion by measuring weight and coat thickness, and by observing seed coat sculpture.
- 4 Rate of seed germination, but not germinability, changed in all species after gut treatment. The greatest effect was in Osyris, in which germination was much enhanced. A great acceleration of germination, which is likely to translate into a seedling size advantage, was also found in Asparagus. In the other three species tested, germination was slower for ingested than for control seeds.
- 5 For Rubus and Rubia seeds, we found a different germination response depending upon the frugivore species tested. A different degree of seed coat scarification caused by differences in gut retention time, chemical and/or mechanical abrasion probably account for such responses.
- 6 In three of the species (Osyris, Rubia and Phillyrea), seed weight decreased after gut treatment. Such weight loss was not caused by any change in coat thickness, but may have been because of the scarification and consequent alteration of the seed coat structure.
- 7 The five Mediterranean species studied germinate when rains are most likely to fall (mostly autumn and spring). The different speed of germination promoted by gut treatment within frugivores may increase the probability that seeds can recruit successfully at a given time and in a given place.
- 8 This study suggests that frugivores contribute to the heterogeneity in germination characteristics not only within plant populations but also within plant communities, each frugivore species having a particular effect on the seeds of each plant consumed.