For many plant species in eastern North America, short observed seed dispersal distances (ranging up to a few tens of meters) fail to explain rapid rates of invasion and migration. This discrepancy points to a substantial gap in our knowledge of the mechanisms by which seeds are dispersed long distances. We investigated the potential for white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimm.), the dominant large herbivore in much of eastern North America, to disperse seeds via endozoochory. This is the first comprehensive study of seed dispersal by white-tailed deer, despite a vast body of research on other aspects of their ecology. More than 70 plant species germinated from deer feces collected over a 1-year period in central New York State, USA. Viable seeds included native and alien herbs, shrubs, and trees, including several invasive introduced species, from the full range of habitat types in the local flora. A mean of >30 seeds germinated per fecal pellet group, and seeds were dispersed during all months of the year. A wide variety of presumed dispersal modes were represented (endo- and exozoochory, wind, ballistic, ant, and unassisted). The majority were species with small-seeded fruits having no obvious adaptations for dispersal, underscoring the difficulty of inferring dispersal ability from diaspore morphology. Due to their broad diet, wide-ranging movements, and relatively long gut retention times, white-tailed deer have tremendous potential for effecting long-distance seed dispersal via ingestion and defecation. We conclude that white-tailed deer represent a significant and previously unappreciated vector of seed dispersal across the North American landscape, probably contributing an important long-distance component to the seed shadows of hundreds of plant species, and providing a mechanism to help explain rapid rates of plant migration.
Oecologia – Springer Journals
Published: Jan 22, 2004
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