Plant populations in fragmented ecosystems rely largely on internal dispersal by animals. To unravel the mechanisms underlying this mode of dispersal, an increasing number of experimental feeding studies is carried out. However, while physical activity is known to affect vertebrate digestive processes, almost all current knowledge on mechanisms of internal seed dispersal has been obtained from experiments with resting animals. We investigated how physical activity of the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), probably the quantitatively most important biotic dispersal agent in aquatic habitats in the entire Northern Hemisphere, affects gut passage survival and retention time of ingested plant seeds. We fed seeds of nine common wetland plants to mallards trained to subsequently swim for 6 hours in a flume tank at different swimming speeds (activity levels). We compared gut passage survival and retention times of seeds against a control treatment with mallards resting in a conventional dry cage. Intact gut passage of seeds increased significantly with mallard activity (up to 80% in the fastest swimming treatment compared to the control), identifying reduced digestive efficiency due to increased metabolic rates as a mechanism enhancing the dispersal potential of ingested seeds. Gut passage speed was modestly accelerated (13% on average) by increased mallard activity, an effect partly obscured by the interaction between seed retention time and probability of digestion. Gut passage acceleration will be more pronounced in digestion-resilient seed species, thereby modulating their dispersal distances. Our findings imply that seed dispersal potential by mallards calculated from previous experiments with resting birds is highly underestimated, while dispersal distances may be overestimated for some plant species. Similar effects of physical activity on digestive efficiency of mammals suggests that endozoochorous dispersal of plant seeds by vertebrates is more effective and plays a quantitatively more important ecological role in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems than previously thought.
Data from: Bird-mediated seed dispersal: reduced digestive efficiency in active birds modulates the dispersal capacity of plant seeds