Scatter-hoarding in Acomys subspinosus : the roles of seed traits, seasonality and cache retrieval

Rusch, Ursina Denise (2011-12)

Thesis (MSc)--Stellenbosch University, 2011.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: With growing concerns about current environmental issues, such as climate change, that affect ecosystems around the world, understanding ecosystem function is becoming increasingly important. In this study, I investigate the plant – seed disperser mutualism between an endemic scatter-hoarding mouse Acomys subspinosus and its Proteaceae plant counterpart Leucadendron sessile in the biodiversity hotspot of the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa. The main objective of this thesis is to investigate the seed selection and caching behaviour of A. subspinosus. First, I determined the seed selection strategy for dispersal and burial by A. subspinosus. Acomys subspinosus may exert stabilizing selection pressure onto L. sessile seeds by dispersing and burying medium seeds with medium hull-thicknesses. Small seeds were eaten in situ and large seeds left at depots. I concluded that the buried L. sessile seeds may have a competitive advantage when it comes to seedling establishment in a post-fire environment, since seeds dispersed by rodents in the fynbos, such as L. sessile, are much larger in size and therefore have more stored nutrients and rapid growth capabilities than seeds dispersed by other vectors. Secondly, I documented rodent dispersal behaviour over a full years’ time. Acomys subspinosus dispersal behaviour changed significantly over the seasons, which I attributed to a change in food availability as the year progressed. Acomys subspinosus buried seeds in autumn after mass seed drop but began to recover caches and consume seeds during winter and spring. The rodent switched to an insectivorous diet in spring. I propose that the A. subspinosus – L. sessile relationship is mutualistic during the year, but the relationship does shift in the favour of the rodent during winter and spring. Lastly, I address the scatter-hoarding behaviour of A. subspinosus and cache recovery ability of its assumed closest food competitor Rhabdomys pumilio. I found that cache size has a profound influence on pilferage rates of L. sessile seeds. Acomys subspinosus scatter-hoarded the majority of seeds singly in the field and R. pumilio had difficulties finding those single-cached seeds in dry substrate under controlled experimental conditions, serving as evidence that scatter-hoarding is an effective method of pilferage mitigation by A. subspinosus during the dry summer months. Relatively little was known about this plant – disperser mutualism and how it functions before this thesis were conducted. I have provided insights into the influence of rodent disperser behaviour on seed morphology development, seed fate and seed persistence in the field and suspect that the plant –disperser relationship may have a larger influence on ecosystem dynamics than previously anticipated. Further research on this system is of importance, especially with today’s emerging environmental instability and human interference that threaten the robustness of highly interconnected ecosystems like the fynbos.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Met die huidige omgewingskwessies, soos die klimaatsverandering, wat ekosisteme wêreldwyd affekteer, word die begrip van ekosisteemfunksionering toenemend belangrik. In hierdie studie ondersoek ek die dier – saadverspreidingsmutualisme tussen die endemiese verstrooiings-storing muis Acomys subspinosus en sy Proteaceae plant eweknie Leucadendron sessile in die biodiversiteit 'hotspot’ van die Kaapse Floristiese Ryk, Suid-Afrika. Die hoof doelwit van die tesis is om die saadseleksie en storingsgedrag van A. subspinosus te ondersoek. Eerstens het ek die saadseleksie strategie vir die verspreiding en begrawing deur A. subspinosus bepaal. Acomys subspinosus het direksionele druk uitgeoefen op L. sessile sade deur mediumgrootte sade met medium saadhuiddiktes te versprei en te begrawe. Klein sade was in situ geëet en groot sade was gelaat by afgesette plekke. Ek het die gevolgtrekking gemaak dat die L. sessile sade wat begrawe is ‘n kompeterende voordeel mag hê wanneer dit kom by die vestiging van saailinge in ‘n afgebrande omgewing, aangesien sade wat in die fynbos deur knaagdiere versprei word, soos L. sessile, baie groter is en dus meer gestoorde voedingstowwe en spoedige groeivermoëns het, as sade wat deur ander vektore versprei word. Tweedens het ek die knaagdier verspreidingsgedrag oor die tydperk van ‘n jaar gedokumenteer. Acomys subspinosus se verspreidingsgedrag het beduidend verander deur die verloop van die jaar, wat ek toegeskryf het aan die verandering in voedselbesbikbaarheid soos wat die jaar gevorder het. Acomys subspinosus het sade begrawe in die herfs na grootskaalse vrylating en val van die sade, maar het gestoorde sade begin terug kry en sade begin eet gedurende die winter en lente. Die knaagdier het na ‘n insekvretende dieët omgeskakel in die lente. Ek stel voor dat die A. Supspinosus – L. sessile verhouding nie die hele jaar mutualisties is nie, maar eerder antagonisties, in die knaagdier se guns, gedurende die winter en lente. In die laaste hoofstuk spreek ek die verstrooiings-storingsgedrag van A. subspinosus en storingsverkrygingvermoeë van sy naaste voedselmededinger en deponeringsdief Rhabdomys pumilio aan. Ek het gevind dat die storingsgrootte ‘n beduidende invloed het op die koers van diefstal van L. sessile sade. Acomys subspinosus het die meerderheid van die sade gestoor in die veld en R. pumilio het die enkel-gestoorde sade in droeë substraat onder gekontroleerde eksperimentele kondisies moeiliker gevind. Dit is ondersteunende bewyse dat verstrooings-storingsgedrag ‘n effektiewe metode is om diefstal te verminder in die droë somer in die fynbos. Relatief min was bekend oor hierdie dier – saad verspreidingsmutualisme en hoe dit funksioneer voordat die studie uitgevoer was. Ek het insig verskaf oor die invloed van knaagdier verspreidingsgedrag op saadmorfologie ontwikkeling, die lot van sade en die tydperk wat dit begrawe is in die veld. Ek vermoed dat die mutualisme ‘n hoeksteenproses is in die fynbos en die invloed daarvan op ekosisteemdinamieka mag dalk groter wees as wat voorheen verwag was. Verdere navorsing oor hierdie sisteem is belangrik, veral met vandag se opkomende omgewingsonstabiliteit en menslike inmenging wat die robuustheid van hoogs verbonde-netwerk ekosisteme soos die fynbos bedreig.

Please refer to this item in SUNScholar by using the following persistent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10019.1/18076
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