The seeds of many plant species present a food body that is consumed by animal dispersers. In theory, if the animals are polyphagous, the availability of alternative food resource other than the diaspore itself may influence its dispersal and survival. We used the myrmecochore Helleborus foetidus L. (Ranunculaceae), the seeds of which are attached to a lipid-rich elaiosome that is attractive to ants, as a model system to investigate (1) whether alternative foods that are present along with the plant affect ant foraging behavior and diaspore removal and (2) whether food availability in an ant nest affects seed predation and germination. In a field experiment, artificial diaspore depots were offered together with either sugar, insect corpses, seed, or no food (control). Contrary to the prediction that ants would rather concentrate their foraging effort on the highly rewarding alternative foods only, many workers, attracted by the sugar, switched to the hellebore diaspores, which significantly enhanced removal rate. Results obtained in the laboratory further indicated that the larvae of Aphaenogaster iberica (a major seed disperser) predated more on the H. foetidus embryos when no alternative food was available. This, in turn, slightly reduced seed germination. Overall, these results shed light, for the first time, on the potential indirect effects of alternative resources on the fate of diaspores adapted for ant dispersal.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
SYNAT - “Interdisciplinary System for Interactive Scientific and Scientific-Technical Information”.