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Adaptive advantages of myrmecochory: the predator-avoidance hypothesis tested over a wide geographic range

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The predator-avoidance hypothesis states that once released from the parent plant, myrmecochorous seeds are rapidly taken by ants to their nests, where they are protected from predators. Previous studies conducted to test this hypothesis have frequently neglected two major aspects necessary for its verification: 1) the influence of processes acting after the seed release and 2) the spatial evenness of such processes. Thus, large-scale variations in the mechanisms acting beyond seed release, and possibly influencing seed escape from predators, remain poorly documented. Here, we present the results of a post-dispersal seed-removal experiment on the myrmecochorous herb Helleborus foetidus, aimed at verifing the predator-avoidance hypothesis by considering two key post-release aspects of seed fate: seed destination (dispersed or nondispersed) and seed burial (buried or not buried). Experiments were performed in four different regions in the Iberian Peninsula. After three days of exposure of seeds to the main predator (fieldmice Apodemus sylvaticus), ca 30% of the seeds were removed. Seed destination affected the proportion of seeds escaping predation, but the sign, magnitude and statistical significance of the effect varied among the geographical regions. In the southern region (Cazorla), seeds dispersed in ant nests or intermediate destinations suffered scarcely any predation, but seeds under reproductive-age plants experienced losses ca 50%. Conversely, in the northern region (Caurel), seeds in nests suffered significantly greater losses than seeds under plants or intermediate destinations, suggesting that nests were especially unsafe destinations. Seed burial had a strong impact on seed escape from predators, and its effect was highly consistent among geographical regions. In view of the consistency of its effect at different spatial scales, seed burial was a more general mechanism for predation avoidance than seed relocation to ant nests, which was habitat- and/or ant-species-dependent. Our results thus only partially support the predator-avoidance hypothesis for the evolution of myrmecochory.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2005

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