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Oecologia. 2004 Mar;139(1):45-54. Epub 2004 Jan 22.

Effects of dung and seed size on secondary dispersal, seed predation, and seedling establishment of rain forest trees.

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Centro de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Apartado Postal 27-3, C.P. 58089, Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico.


Seeds dispersed by tropical, arboreal mammals are usually deposited singly and without dung or in clumps of fecal material. After dispersal through defecation by mammals, most seeds are secondarily dispersed by dung beetles or consumed by rodents. These post-dispersal, plant-animal interactions are likely to interact themselves, as seeds buried by dung beetles are less likely to be found by rodents than unburied seeds. In a series of three experiments with seeds of 15 species in central Amazonia (Brazil), we determined (1) how presence and amount of dung associated with seeds influences long-term seed fate and seedling establishment, (2) how deeply dung beetles bury seeds and how burial depth affects seedling establishment, and (3) how seed size affects the interaction between seeds, dung beetles, and rodents. Our overall goal was to understand how post-dispersal plant-animal interactions determine the link between primary seed dispersal and seedling establishment. On average, 43% of seeds surrounded by dung were buried by dung beetles, compared to 0% of seeds not surrounded by dung ( n=2,156). Seeds in dung, however, tended to be more prone than bare seeds to predation by rodents. Of seeds in dung, probability of burial was negatively related to seed size and positively related to amount of dung. Burial of seeds decreased the probability of seed predation by rodents three-fold, and increased the probability of seedling establishment two-fold. Mean burial depth was 4 cm (0.5-20 cm) and was not related to seed size, contrary to previous studies. Probability of seedling establishment was negatively correlated with burial depth and not related to seed size at 5 or 10 cm depths. These results illustrate a complex web of interactions among dung beetles, rodents, and dispersed seeds. These interactions affect the probability of seedling establishment and are themselves strongly tied to how seeds are deposited by primary dispersers. More generally, our results emphasize the importance of looking beyond a single type of plant-animal interaction (e.g., seed dispersal or seed predation) to incorporate potential effects of interacting interactions.

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