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1.5: Pollination and Seed Dispersal

  • Page ID
    17773
  • An estimated 90 percent of flowering plants depend on pollinators such as wasps, birds, bats, and bees, to reproduce. Plants and their pollinators are increasingly threatened around the world (Buchmann and Nabhan 1995; Kremen and Ricketts 2000). Pollination is critical to most major crops and virtually impossible to replace. For instance, imagine how costly fruit would be (and how little would be available) if its natural pollinators no longer existed and each developing flower had to be fertilized by hand.

    Many animal species are important dispersers of plant seeds. It has been hypothesized that the loss of a seed disperser could cause a plant to become extinct. At present, there is no example where this has occurred. A famous example that has often been cited previously is the case of the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) and the tambalacoque (Sideroxylon grandiflorum). The dodo, a large flightless bird that inhabited the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, became extinct due to overhunting in the late seventeenth century. It was once thought that the tambalacoque, a now endangered tree, depended upon the dodo to germinate its hard-cased seeds (Temple 1977). In the 1970s, only 13 trees remained and it was thought the tree had not reproduced for 300 years. The seeds of the tree have a very hard coat, as an experiment they were fed to a turkey; after passing through its gizzard the seeds were viable and germinated. This experiment led scientists to believe that the extinction of the dodo was coupled to the tambalacoque's inability to reproduce. However, this hypothesis has not stood up to further scrutiny, as there were several other species (including three now extinct species, a large-billed parrot, a giant tortoise, and a giant lizard) that were also capable of cracking the seed (Witmar and Cheke 1991; Catling 2001). Thus many factors, including the loss of the dodo, could have contributed to the decline of the tambalacoque. (For further details of causes of extinction see Historical Perspectives on Extinction and the Current Biodiversity Crisis). Unfortunately, declines and/or extinctions of species are often unobserved and thus it is difficult to tease out the cause of the end result, as multiple factors are often operating simultaneously. Similar problems exist today in understanding current population declines. For example, in a given species, population declines may be caused by loss of habitat, loss in prey species or loss of predators, a combination of these factors, or possibly some other yet unidentified cause, such as disease.

    In the pine forests of western North America, corvids (including jays, magpies, and crows), squirrels, and bears play a role in seed dispersal. The Clark's nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) is particularly well adapted to dispersal of whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) seeds (Lanner 1996). The nutcracker removes the wingless seeds from the cones, which otherwise would not open on their own. Nutcrackers hide the seeds in clumps. When the uneaten seeds eventually grow, they are clustered, accounting for the typical distribution pattern of whitebark pine in the forest.

    In tropical areas, large mammals and frugivorous birds play a key role in dispersing the seeds of trees and maintaining tree diversity over large areas. For example, three-wattled bellbirds (Procnias tricarunculata) are important dispersers of tree seeds of members of the Lauraceae family in Costa Rica. Because bellbirds return again and again to one or more favorite perches, they take the fruit and its seeds away from the parent tree, spreading Lauraceae trees throughout the forest (Wenny and Levy 1998).