Vector activity and propagule size affect dispersal potential by vertebrates

C.H.A. Van Leeuwen, M. Tollenaar, M.R.J. Klaassen

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Many small organisms in various life stages can be transported in the digestive system of larger vertebrates, a process known as endozoochory. Potential dispersal distances of these “propagules” are generally calculated after monitoring retrieval in experiments with resting vector animals. We argue that vectors in natural situations will be actively moving during effective transport rather than resting. We here test for the first time how physical activity of a vector animal might affect its dispersal efficiency. We compared digestive characteristics between swimming, wading (i.e. resting in water) and isolation (i.e. resting in a cage) mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). We fed plastic markers and aquatic gastropods, and monitored retrieval and survival of these propagules in the droppings over 24 h. Over a period of 5 h of swimming, mallards excreted 1.5 times more markers than when wading and 2.3 times more markers than isolation birds, the pattern being reversed over the subsequent period of monitoring where all birds were resting. Retention times of markers were shortened for approximately 1 h for swimming, and 0.5 h for wading birds. Shorter retention times imply higher survival of propagules at increased vector activity. However, digestive intensity measured directly by retrieval of snail shells was not a straightforward function of level of activity. Increased marker size had a negative effect on discharge rate. Our experiment indicates that previous estimates of propagule dispersal distances based on resting animals are overestimated, while propagule survival seems underestimated. These findings have implications for the dispersal of invasive species, meta-population structures and long distance colonization events.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-109
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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