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This content will become publicly available on November 2, 2024

Title: The Causes and Consequences of Seed Dispersal

Seed dispersal, or the movement of diaspores away from the parent location, is a multiscale, multipartner process that depends on the interaction of plant life history with vector movement and the environment. Seed dispersal underpins many important plant ecological and evolutionary processes such as gene flow, population dynamics, range expansion, and diversity. We review exciting new directions that the field of seed dispersal ecology and evolution has taken over the past 40 years. We provide an overview of the ultimate causes of dispersal and the consequences of this important process for plant population and community dynamics. We also discuss several emergent unifying frameworks that are being used to study dispersal and describe how they can be integrated to provide a more mechanistic understanding of dispersal.

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Award ID(s):
2231761 1953934
Author(s) / Creator(s):
Publisher / Repository:
Annual Reviews
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics
Page Range / eLocation ID:
403 to 427
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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  1. McConkey, Kim (Ed.)
    Abstract Despite the importance of seed dispersal as a driving process behind plant community assembly, our understanding of the role of seed dispersal in plant population persistence and spread remains incomplete. As a result, our ability to predict the effects of global change on plant populations is hampered. We need to better understand the fundamental link between seed dispersal and population dynamics in order to make predictive generalizations across species and systems, to better understand plant community structure and function, and to make appropriate conservation and management responses related to seed dispersal. To tackle these important knowledge gaps, we established the CoDisperse Network and convened an interdisciplinary, NSF-sponsored Seed Dispersal Workshop in 2016, during which we explored the role of seed dispersal in plant population dynamics (NSF DEB Award # 1548194). In this Special Issue, we consider the current state of seed dispersal ecology and identify the following collaborative research needs: (i) the development of a mechanistic understanding of the movement process influencing dispersal of seeds; (ii) improved quantification of the relative influence of seed dispersal on plant fitness compared to processes occurring at other life history stages; (iii) an ability to scale from individual plants to ecosystems to quantify the influence of dispersal on ecosystem function; and (iv) the incorporation of seed dispersal ecology into conservation and management strategies. 
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  2. By dispersing seeds long distances, large, fruit-eating animals influence plant population spread and community dynamics. After fruit consumption, animal gut passage time and movement determine seed dispersal patterns and distances. These, in turn, are influenced by extrinsic, environmental variables and intrinsic, individual-level variables. We simulated seed dispersal by forest elephants ( Loxodonta cyclotis ) by integrating gut passage data from wild elephants with movement data from 96 individuals. On average, elephants dispersed seeds 5.3 km, with 89% of seeds dispersed farther than 1 km. The longest simulated seed dispersal distance was 101 km, with an average maximum dispersal distance of 40.1 km. Seed dispersal distances varied among national parks, perhaps due to unmeasured environmental differences such as habitat heterogeneity and configuration, but not with human disturbance or habitat openness. On average, male elephants dispersed seeds farther than females. Elephant behavioral traits strongly influenced dispersal distances, with bold, exploratory elephants dispersing seeds 1.1 km farther than shy, idler elephants. Protection of forest elephants, particularly males and highly mobile, exploratory individuals, is critical to maintaining long distance seed dispersal services that shape plant communities and tropical forest habitat. 
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  3. McConkey, Kim (Ed.)
    Abstract Although dispersal is generally viewed as a crucial determinant for the fitness of any organism, our understanding of its role in the persistence and spread of plant populations remains incomplete. Generalizing and predicting dispersal processes are challenging due to context dependence of seed dispersal, environmental heterogeneity and interdependent processes occurring over multiple spatial and temporal scales. Current population models often use simple phenomenological descriptions of dispersal processes, limiting their ability to examine the role of population persistence and spread, especially under global change. To move seed dispersal ecology forward, we need to evaluate the impact of any single seed dispersal event within the full spatial and temporal context of a plant’s life history and environmental variability that ultimately influences a population’s ability to persist and spread. In this perspective, we provide guidance on integrating empirical and theoretical approaches that account for the context dependency of seed dispersal to improve our ability to generalize and predict the consequences of dispersal, and its anthropogenic alteration, across systems. We synthesize suitable theoretical frameworks for this work and discuss concepts, approaches and available data from diverse subdisciplines to help operationalize concepts, highlight recent breakthroughs across research areas and discuss ongoing challenges and open questions. We address knowledge gaps in the movement ecology of seeds and the integration of dispersal and demography that could benefit from such a synthesis. With an interdisciplinary perspective, we will be able to better understand how global change will impact seed dispersal processes, and potential cascading effects on plant population persistence, spread and biodiversity. 
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  4. Abstract Aim

    Due to the sessile nature of flowering plants, movements to new geographical areas occur mainly during seed dispersal. Frugivores tend to be efficient dispersers because animals move within the boundaries of their preferable niches, so seeds are more likely to be transported to environments that are similar to where the parent plant occurs. However, this efficiency can result in less opportunity for niche shifts over macroevolutionary time, ‘trapping’ plant lineages in particular climatic conditions. Here we test this hypothesis by analysing the role that the interaction with frugivores play in changing dynamics of climatic niche evolution in five clades of flowering plants.




    The flowering plant families Apocynaceae, Ericaceae, Melastomataceae, Rosaceae and Solanaceae.


    We model climatic niche evolution as a variable parameter Ornstein–Uhlenbeck process. However, rather than assuming regimes a priori, we use a hidden Markov model (HMM) to infer the complex evolutionary history associated with different modes of seed dispersal. In addition to allowing for a more accurate picture of the regimes, the use of HMMs allows partitioning the variance of climatic niche evolution to include dynamics independent of our focal character.


    Lineages dispersed by frugivores tend to have warmer and wetter climatic optima and are generally associated with areas where potential for vegetation growth is higher. However, lineages distributed in more mesic habitats, such as rainforests, are generally associated with slower rates of climatic niche evolution regardless of their mode of seed dispersal.

    Main Conclusions

    Characteristics of the abiotic environment may facilitate the evolution of some types of plant–animal interactions. Association with frugivores is an important modulator of how plants move in space, but its impact on their climatic niche evolution appears to be indirect. Seed dispersal by frugivores may facilitate the establishment of lineages in closed canopy biomes, but the general slower rates of climatic niche evolution in these habitats are possibly related to other general aspects of the ‘mesic syndrome’ rather than the behaviour of the animals that disperse their seeds.

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  5. Abstract As the single opportunity for plants to move, seed dispersal has an important impact on plant fitness, species distributions and patterns of biodiversity. However, models that predict dynamics such as risk of extinction, range shifts and biodiversity loss tend to rely on the mean value of parameters and rarely incorporate realistic dispersal mechanisms. By focusing on the mean population value, variation among individuals or variability caused by complex spatial and temporal dynamics is ignored. This calls for increased efforts to understand individual variation in dispersal and integrate it more explicitly into population and community models involving dispersal. However, the sources, magnitude and outcomes of intraspecific variation in dispersal are poorly characterized, limiting our understanding of the role of dispersal in mediating the dynamics of communities and their response to global change. In this manuscript, we synthesize recent research that examines the sources of individual variation in dispersal and emphasize its implications for plant fitness, populations and communities. We argue that this intraspecific variation in seed dispersal does not simply add noise to systems, but, in fact, alters dispersal processes and patterns with consequences for demography, communities, evolution and response to anthropogenic changes. We conclude with recommendations for moving this field of research forward. 
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