The ecology of seed dispersal by small rodents: A role for predator and conspecific scents

Sunyer P., Muñoz A., Bonal R., Espelta J.M. (2013) The ecology of seed dispersal by small rodents: A role for predator and conspecific scents. Functional Ecology. 27: 1313-1321.
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Doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.12143

Resum:

Seed-caching rodents play a key role in the ecology of seed dispersal by not only consuming but also dispersing seeds. Rodent foraging behaviour is usually framed within optimal models, which predict that their decisions should maximize food intake and minimize foraging costs. Although predation risk and seed pilferage by conspecifics have been envisaged as two potential costs, their relevance for seed-caching behaviour and seed dispersal has barely been addressed. To test the effect of predation and pilferage risk on the patterns of seed predation/dispersal by rodents, we performed a field experiment using a tri-trophic-level model (plant-mice-carnivore; Quercus spp-Apodemus sylvaticus-Genetta genetta) and the scents of the predator and conspecifics as direct cues. The behaviour of mice was analysed with video cameras set for continuous recording on consecutive nights, and we used tagged acorns to assess the patterns of acorn predation and dispersal. Our results revealed that rodents were able to discriminate between the scents of genet and conspecifics and modified their seed dispersal behaviour accordingly. Mice spent more time 'sniffing' in rodent cages than in genet cages, where they displayed more 'vigilance and freezing' behaviours. In sites with mice scents, acorns were dispersed at shorter distances and were less predated. Conversely, in sites with genet scents acorn removal was delayed. These results show that chemosensory information on predators and conspecifics influences the foraging decisions of seed-caching rodents over short spatial and temporal scales. This might entail cascading effects on the regeneration of plants. In sites where rodents perceive the risk of predation, inefficient foraging behaviour may result in less successful seed dispersal. Conversely, the detection of conspecific scents may increase dispersal efficiency and seedling recruitment. Ultimately, the relationships between two distant levels in trophic webs (plants-carnivores) appear intricate, since carnivores may affect seed dispersal by changing the foraging behaviour of their prey (the seed disperser). This indirect relationship should be considered as a new dimension of the ecology of seed dispersal by small rodents. © 2013 British Ecological Society.

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