Interactions between seed traits and digestive processes determine the germinability of bird-dispersed seeds

Erik Kleyheeg (Corresponding author), Mascha Claessens, Merel B. Soons

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Waterbirds disperse a wide range of plant seeds via their guts, promoting biotic connectivity between isolated habitat patches. However, the intensity of digestive forces encountered by seeds, and therefore their potential to survive digestive tract passage, varies within and between waterbird species. Here, we investigate under controlled conditions how the interaction between seed traits and digestive strategies affect the germinability of seeds following waterbird-mediated dispersal. We exposed seeds of 30 wetland plant species to the main digestive processes in the dabbling duck digestive system: mechanical, chemical and intestinal digestion. These were simulated by 1) a pressure test and scarification treatment, 2) incubation in simulated gastric juice, and 3) incubation in intestinal contents of culled mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). We evaluated their separate and combined effects on seed germination, and identified the role of seed size and seed coat traits in resisting the digestive forces. Seeds were generally resistant to separate digestive processes, but highly sensitive to a combination. Resistance to mechanical break-down was reduced by up to 80% by chemical pre-treatment, especially for seeds with permeable coats. Scarified seeds were 12–17% more vulnerable to chemical and intestinal digestive processes than undamaged seeds. Large seeds and seeds with thin, permeable coats were particularly sensitive to chemical and intestinal digestion. These results indicate that efficient digestion of seeds requires multiple digestive processes. The gizzard, responsible for mechanical digestion, plays a key role in seed survival. Omnivorous birds, which have relatively light gizzards compared to pure herbivores or granivores, are thus most likely to disperse seeds successfully. Regardless of digestive strategy, small seeds with tough seed coats are most resistant to digestion and may be adapted to endozoochorous dispersal by waterbirds.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0195026
JournalPLoS One
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 03 Apr 2018


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