Forest rodents provide directed dispersal of Jeffrey pine seeds.

Rocky Mountain Geographic Science Center, USGS, Box 25046 Denver Federal Center, Denver, Colorado 80225, USA.
Ecology (Impact Factor: 5). 04/2009; 90(3):675-87. DOI: 10.1890/07-0542.1
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Some species of animals provide directed dispersal of plant seeds by transporting them nonrandomly to microsites where their chances of producing healthy seedlings are enhanced. We investigated whether this mutualistic interaction occurs between granivorous rodents and Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) in the eastern Sierra Nevada by comparing the effectiveness of random abiotic seed dispersal with the dispersal performed by four species of rodents: deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus), yellow-pine and long-eared chipmunks (Tamias amoenus and T. quadrimaculatus), and golden-mantled ground squirrels (Spermophilus lateralis). We conducted two caching studies using radio-labeled seeds, the first with individual animals in field enclosures and the second with a community of rodents in open forest. We used artificial caches to compare the fates of seeds placed at the range of microsites and depths used by animals with the fates of seeds dispersed abiotically. Finally, we examined the distribution and survival of naturally establishing seedlings over an eight-year period. Several lines of evidence suggested that this community of rodents provided directed dispersal. Animals preferred to cache seeds in microsites that were favorable for emergence or survival of seedlings and avoided caching in microsites in which seedlings fared worst. Seeds buried at depths typical of animal caches (5-25 mm) produced at least five times more seedlings than did seeds on the forest floor. The four species of rodents differed in the quality of dispersal they provided. Small, shallow caches made by deer mice most resembled seeds dispersed by abiotic processes, whereas many of the large caches made by ground squirrels were buried too deeply for successful emergence of seedlings. Chipmunks made the greatest number of caches within the range of depths and microsites favorable for establishment of pine seedlings. Directed dispersal is an important element of the population dynamics of Jeffrey pine, a dominant tree species in the eastern Sierra Nevada. Quantifying the occurrence and dynamics of directed dispersal in this and other cases will contribute to better understanding of mutualistic coevolution of plants and animals and to more effective management of ecosystems in which directed dispersal is a keystone process.

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