Alien plant species are rapidly spreading in aquatic ecosystems around the world, causing major ecological effects. They are typically introduced by humans, after which natural vectors facilitate their further spread. Migratory waterbirds have long been recognised as important dispersal vectors for native and aquatic plants, yet little is known about their role in the spread of alien species.
We determined experimentally the potential for long-distance dispersal of native and alien wetland plants in Europe by two abundant waterfowl: mallards Anas platyrhynchos and greylag geese Anser anser. We fed seeds from two plants alien to Europe and two native plants to 10 individuals of each bird species, testing for the effects of bird and plant species on the potential for dispersal.
Intact seeds were retrieved from faeces for up to 4days after ingestion. The proportion of seeds retrieved intact varied significantly between plant, but not bird, species. Retrieval was highest for the invasive water primrose Ludwigia grandiflora (>35% of ingested seeds), lowest for the invasive cordgrass Spartina densiflora (<3%) and intermediate for the native glasswort Arthrocnemum macrostachyum and seablite Suaeda vera (5-10%).
Seed retrieval patterns over time varied between both plant and bird species. Contrary to expectations, seeds were retained in the gut for longer in the smaller mallards. No Spartina seeds germinated after retention for over 8h, whereas some seeds of the other species germinated even after retention for 72h. Germinability was reduced by gut passage for Ludwigia and Arthrocnemum seeds. Ludwigia seeds recovered from geese were more likely to germinate than those recovered from mallards. Time to germination was reduced by gut passage for Spartina and Ludwigia, but increased with retention time.
Ducks and geese evidently have the potential for long-distance transport of alien and native plant seeds, with maximal dispersal distances of well over 1000km. The much greater potential of Ludwigia than Spartina for dispersal by waterfowl is consistent with its faster expansion across Europe. Maximum retention times of wetland seeds have been underestimated in previous experimental studies that lasted only 1-2days. Contrary to previous studies, wetland plants with large seeds, such as Ludwigia, can still show high potential for long-distance dispersal. More attention should be paid to the role of waterbirds as vectors of alien plants and to the role of migratory geese as vectors of plants in general.