A mechanistic assessment of the relationship between gut morphology and endozoochorous seed dispersal by waterfowl

Erik Kleyheeg, Bart A. Nolet, Sandra Otero-Ojea, Merel B. Soons

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Abstract Many plants and invertebrates rely on internal transport by animals for long-distance dispersal. Their dispersal capacity is greatly influenced by interactions with the animal's digestive tract. Omnivorous birds adjust their digestive tract morphology to seasonally variable diets. We performed feeding trials in waterfowl to unravel how changing organ size, in combination with seed size, affects dispersal potential. We subjected captive mallards to mimics of summer (animal-based), winter (plant-based), and intermediate diets, and analyzed gut passage of seeds before and after the treatment (trials 1 and 2). To test the effect of gut morphology on seed digestion, we measured digestive organ size after euthanasia. Three hours before euthanasia, differently sized seeds were fed to test how seed size affects gut passage by determining their relative position in the digestive tract (trial 3). Trials 1 and 2 showed that intact seed passage was lower in the plant-based than in the animal-based diet group. Retention time changed only within groups, decreasing in the animal-based, and increasing in the plant-based diet group. No post-diet differences in organ size were detected, probably due to large between-individual variation within groups. Digestive tract measures did not explain variation in seed survival or retention time. Trial 3 revealed that small seeds pass the digestive tract rapidly, while large seeds are retained longer, particularly in the gizzard. Differential retention in the gizzard, the section where seeds can be destroyed, is likely why larger seeds have a lower probability to pass the digestive tract intact. Our results confirm that rapid, flexible adaptation to diet shifts affects seed digestion in waterfowl, although we could not conclusively relate this to organ size. Large interindividual variation in digestive efficiency between mallards feeding on the same diet may provide opportunities for seed dispersal in the field throughout the annual cycle.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10857-10867
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number22
Early online date30 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • digestive tract
  • endozoochory
  • mallard
  • seed size
  • water birds
  • wetland ecology
  • national


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