- 1Seed dispersal is considered critical for shaping the spatial structure of plant populations, though little empirical effort has been made to interpret this effect in terms of the scale at which plant species are distributed and cope with environmental heterogeneity. We assessed the spatial role of seed dispersal in Tristerix corymbosus, a mistletoe dispersed exclusively in the temperate forests of Patagonia by the endemic marsupial Dromiciops gliroides.
- 2We examined how fruit resource tracking and seed dispersal by the marsupial affects mistletoe recruitment, employing a spatially explicit approach aimed at breaking down the spatial structure of the mistletoe and marsupial populations at different scales.
- 3In a single fruiting season, we evaluated the abundance of mistletoe fruits, adult plants, dispersed seeds and recruits (seedlings and saplings), as well as the abundance of marsupials, along a 1500-m linear transect.
- 4Both mistletoe and marsupial abundances were distributed hierarchically in space, with large patches containing smaller ones. Marsupial patchiness matched that of mistletoe fruits, at least at a broad scale within the transect. Marsupial abundance also varied at a large-scale, being conditioned by habitat features and decreasing progressively along the transect. Mistletoe seed rain accounted for the patchiness of adult plants and fruits, and for the large-scale pattern of marsupial activity. The spatial pattern of mistletoe recruitment closely matched seed rain.
- 5Synthesis. Seed dispersal by marsupials shaped the scale of mistletoe recruitment in two ways. First, marsupials created a spatial match between mistletoe adults and recruits as a result of fruit resource tracking. Second, they generated patchiness in mistletoe offspring at a larger scale than in adults. Dispersal process performed as a strong demographic filter capable of changing the mistletoe spatial structure from adults to recruits, despite a low frequency of far-from-adult dispersal events. Similar effects of scale shaping by seed dispersers may be generalized among plants in which there is a sharp spatial match between fruits and frugivores, and whose dispersed seeds have a higher probability of recruiting than undispersed ones.