A fundamental way in which animal-dispersed plants can influence the viability and distribution of dispersed seeds is through control of retention time in the guts of dispersers. Using two species of wild chilies and their dispersers, we examined how chemical and physical properties of fruits and seeds mediate this interaction. Capsicum chacoense is polymorphic for pungency, occurs in Bolivia, and is dispersed mostly by elaenias. Capsicum annuum is not polymorphic, occurs in Arizona (USA), and is dispersed mostly by thrashers.
We first tested whether capsaicin, the substance responsible for the pungency of chilies, affects gut retention time of seeds in primary dispersers. Capsaicin slowed gut passage of seeds but did so in a manner that differed greatly between bird species because the constipative effects of capsaicin occurred only after an 80-minute time lag. Elaenias in Bolivia held only 6% of C. chacoense seeds for >80 minutes, whereas thrashers in Arizona held 78% of C. annuum seeds for >80 minutes.
Next we examined the effects of retention time on seed viability and germination. Increased retention resulted in a greater proportion of seeds germinating in C. annuum, had no effects on non-pungent C. chacoense, and had negative effects on pungent C. chacoense. These divergent effects are explained by differences in seed coat morphology: seed coats of pungent C. chacoense are 10–12% thinner than those of the other two types of seeds. Thus, longer retention times damaged seeds with the thinnest seed coats. In C. annuum, seed viability remained high regardless of retention time, but germination increased with retention, suggesting a role for scarification.
Thus, in C. annuum, fruit chemistry appears well matched with seed morphology and disperser physiology: capsaicin extends gut retention for most seeds, resulting in greater seed scarification and higher germination rates. Increased retention of pungent C. chacoense seeds is detrimental, but because the primary consumers have short retention times, capsaicin slows only a small proportion of seeds, minimizing negative effects. These results illustrate the importance of context in studies of fruit secondary metabolites. The same chemical can have different impacts on plant fitness depending on its morphological, physiological, and ecological context.