Small seed size increases the potential for dispersal of wetland plants by ducks

Authors

  • Merel B. Soons,

    Corresponding author
    1. Landscape Ecology Group, Department of Biology, Utrecht University, Sorbonnelaan 16, 3584 CA Utrecht, The Netherlands;
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  • Cornelis Van Der Vlugt,

    1. Landscape Ecology Group, Department of Biology, Utrecht University, Sorbonnelaan 16, 3584 CA Utrecht, The Netherlands;
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  • Bart Van Lith,

    1. Department of Plant–Animal Interactions, NIOO-KNAW Centre for Limnology, Rijksstraatweg 6, 3631 AC Nieuwersluis, The Netherlands
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  • Gerrit W. Heil,

    1. Landscape Ecology Group, Department of Biology, Utrecht University, Sorbonnelaan 16, 3584 CA Utrecht, The Netherlands;
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  • Marcel Klaassen

    1. Landscape Ecology Group, Department of Biology, Utrecht University, Sorbonnelaan 16, 3584 CA Utrecht, The Netherlands;
    2. Department of Plant–Animal Interactions, NIOO-KNAW Centre for Limnology, Rijksstraatweg 6, 3631 AC Nieuwersluis, The Netherlands
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*Correspondence author. E-mail: m.b.soons@uu.nl

Summary

  • 1Long-distance dispersal (LDD) is important in plants of dynamic and ephemeral habitats. For plants of dynamic wetland habitats, waterfowl are generally considered to be important LDD vectors. However, in comparison to the internal (endozoochorous) dispersal of terrestrial plants by birds, endozoochorous dispersal of wetland plants by waterfowl has received little attention. We quantified the capacity for endozoochorous dispersal of wetland plants by waterfowl and identified the mechanisms underlying successful dispersal, by comparing the dispersal capacities of a large number of wetland plant species.
  • 2We selected 23 common plant species from dynamic wetland habitats and measured their seed characteristics. We fed seeds of all species to mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), a common and highly omnivorous duck species, and quantified seed gut survival, gut passage speed and subsequent germination. We then used a simple model to calculate seed dispersal distances.
  • 3In total 21 of the 23 species can be dispersed by mallards, with intact seed retrieval and subsequent successful germination of up to 32% of the ingested seeds. The species that pass fastest through the digestive tract of the mallards are retrieved in the greatest numbers (up to 54%) and germinate best (up to 87%). These are the species with the smallest seeds. Seed coat thickness plays only a minor role in determining intact passage through the mallard gut, but determines if ingestion enhances or reduces germination in comparison to control seeds.
  • 4Model calculations estimate that whereas the largest seeds can hardly be dispersed by mallards, most seeds can be dispersed up to 780 km, and the smallest seeds up to 3000 km, by mallards during migration.
  • 5Synthesis. This study demonstrates the mechanism underlying successful endozoochorous dispersal of wetland plant seeds by mallards: small seed size promotes rapid, and hence intact and viable, passage through the mallard gut. Mallards can disperse wetland plant seeds of all but the largest-seeded species successfully in relatively large numbers (up to 32% of ingested seeds) over long distances (up to thousands of kilometres) and are therefore important dispersal vectors.

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