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Geographic variation in seed removal of a myrmecochorous herb: influence of variation in functional guild and species composition of the disperser assemblage through spatial and temporal scales

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The ecological influence of changes in the functional guild and species composition of ant assemblages on ant-dispersal mutualisms is still poorly known. Using a multi-scale approach over an 800 km range within the Iberian Peninsula, we tested the hypothesis that variation in seed removal rate was related to functional guild rather than to species composition variations of disperser assemblages in the myrmecochore herb Helleborus foetidus. At least two premises must be confirmed to validate this hypothesis: 1) ant assemblages that are dissimilar in species composition but with similar functional guild composition will not differ significantly in seed removal, and 2) assemblages with different functional guild composition will render different seed removal services. We conducted 3328 ant-visitor censuses on 462 individual plants to identify both the species composition and functional guild variation of the ant-disperser assemblage, and the plant seed removal rate. Functional guild composition of the ant assemblage was determined by the proportion of visits of ants acting as legitimate dispersers, facultative dispersers or elaiosome predators. Results showed that ant-seed dispersal success seemed to be more sensitive to species composition changes of the ant assemblage than to functional guild shifts. However, this sensitivity was scale-dependent. Thus, at the fine, inter-individual scale, seed removal covaried with the species and functional guild composition of the ant assemblages; at the inter-populational scale, differences in seed removal tended to be related to the dissimilarity of the assemblage species composition rather than the assemblage functional guild; finally, inter-regional differences in seed removal were unrelated to dissimilarities of the ant assemblage composition or functional guild. Though differences in seed removal and the relative frequency of the legitimate dispersers tended to be positively correlated, none of the above premises were fully confirmed in this study. Therefore, our results did not support in full the hypothesis that the variation in seed removal was explained by shifts in functional guild composition, rather than shifts in species composition.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2008

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