Seed dispersal  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Seed dispersal is the movement or transport of seeds away from the parent plant. Plants have limited mobility and consequently rely upon a variety of dispersal vectors to transport their propagules, including both abiotic and biotic vectors. Seeds can be dispersed away from the parent plant individually or collectively, as well as dispersed in both space and time. The patterns of seed dispersal are determined in large part by the dispersal mechanism and this has important implications for the demographic and genetic structure of plant populations, as well as migration patterns and species interactions. There are five main modes of seed dispersal: gravity, wind, ballistic, water and by animals. Some plants are serotinous and only disperse their seeds in response to an environmental stimulus.

By animals

Animals can disperse plant seeds in several ways, all named zoochory. Seeds can be transported on the outside of vertebrate animals (mostly mammals), a process known as epizoochory. Plant species transported externally by animals can have a variety of adaptations for dispersal, including adhesive mucus, and a variety of hooks, spines and barbs. A typical example of an epizoochorous plant is Trifolium angustifolium, a species of Old World clover which adheres to animal fur by means of stiff hairs covering the seed. Epizoochorous plants tend to be herbaceous plants, with many representative species in the families Apiaceae and Asteraceae. However, epizoochory is a relatively rare dispersal syndrome for plants as a whole; the percentage of plant species with seeds adapted for transport on the outside of animals is estimated to be below 5%. Nevertheless, epizoochorous transport can be highly effective if seeds attach to wide-ranging animals. This form of seed dispersal has been implicated in rapid plant migration and the spread of invasive species.

Seed dispersal via ingestion and excretion by vertebrate animals (mostly birds and mammals), or endozoochory, is the dispersal mechanism for most tree species. Endozoochory is generally a coevolved mutualistic relationship in which a plant surrounds seeds with an edible, nutritious fruit as a good food for animals that consume it. Birds and mammals are the most important seed dispersers, but a wide variety of other animals, including turtles and fish, can transport viable seeds. The exact percentage of tree species dispersed by endozoochory varies between habitats, but can range to over 90% in some tropical rainforests. Seed dispersal by animals in tropical rainforests has received much attention, and this interaction is considered an important force shaping the ecology and evolution of vertebrate and tree populations. In the tropics, large animal seed dispersers (such as tapirs, chimpanzees and hornbills) may disperse large seeds with few other seed dispersal agents. The extinction of these large frugivores from poaching and habitat loss may have negative effects on the tree populations that depend on them for seed dispersal.

Seed dispersal by ants (myrmecochory) is a dispersal mechanism of many shrubs of the southern hemisphere or understorey herbs of the northern hemisphere. Seeds of myrmecochorous plants have a lipid-rich attachment called the elaiosome, which attracts ants. Ants carry such seeds into their colonies, feed the elaiosome to their larvae and discard the otherwise intact seed in an underground chamber. Myrmecochory is thus a coevolved mutualistic relationship between plants and seed-disperser ants. Myrmecochory has independently evolved at least 100 times in flowering plants and is estimated to be present in at least 11 000 species, but likely up to 23 000 or 9% of all species of flowering plants. Myrmecochorous plants are most frequent in the fynbos vegetation of the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa, the kwongan vegetation and other dry habitat types of Australia, dry forests and grasslands of the Mediterranean region and northern temperate forests of western Eurasia and eastern North America, where up to 30–40% of understorey herbs are myrmecochorous.

Seed predators, which include many rodents (such as squirrels) and some birds (such as jays) may also disperse seeds by hoarding the seeds in hidden caches. The seeds in caches are usually well-protected from other seed predators and if left uneaten will grow into new plants. In addition, rodents may also disperse seeds via seed spitting due to the presence of secondary metabolites in ripe fruits. Finally, seeds may be secondarily dispersed from seeds deposited by primary animal dispersers. For example, dung beetles are known to disperse seeds from clumps of feces in the process of collecting dung to feed their larvae.

Other types of zoochory are chiropterochory (by bats), malacochory (by molluscs, mainly terrestrial snails) or ornithochory (by birds).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Seed dispersal" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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