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The evolution of rewards: seed dispersal, seed size and elaiosome size

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We examine the relationship between the reward offered to ants to disperse seeds (elaiosome size) and seed size, and the possible mechanisms that may generate this relationship in Australian plant species.

We used seed and elaiosome sizes from our own data set containing 87 Acacia species, supplemented with 22 species from a previously published data set, and 98 ‘Other species’ from 51 genera in 25 families, also from published data.

The relationship between ln(elaiosome size) and ln(seed size) was determined using standard major axis (SMA) regression for both data sets. For the Other data set we also determined the relationship among species independent of the differences between genera, among genera independent of the differences between families, among genera and among families. We used SMA to test for differences in slopes between groups.

We found a significant common slope amongst all subsets of the larger data set. The estimated common slope and the 95% confidence interval for the relationship between ln(elaiosome size) and ln(seed size) across all data sets fell above one (1.24, 95%CI = 1.17–1.32), suggesting positive allometry. Slopes were also significantly positive and strikingly similar between the Acacia species data set and the Other species data sets. Similar positive allometry was shown in the ‘other’ species data set among genera and families, and among species independent of genus means (‘species effects’).

Significant and consistent relationships between taxonomic levels, independent of relationships at other levels, along with significant relationships at the species level, and similarity of slopes, suggest independent convergence towards an underlying functional relationship that has persisted over long evolutionary periods. Our results therefore suggest that ants have been agents of selection on seed traits.

Such a functional relationship might result from a trade‐off in ant foraging behaviour between the benefit of the reward (elaiosome) and the cost of the dispersal (determined by seed size). Slopes > 1 would then suggest that ants need more than proportionally larger rewards to remove larger seeds.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: School of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW, 2109, Australia, and Institute for Conservation Biology, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW, 2522, Australia

Publication date: 01 May 2006

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