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Dispersal mechanisms of the narrow endemic Polygala vayredae: dispersal syndromes and spatio-temporal variations in ant dispersal assemblages
S. Castro, V. Ferrero, J. Loureiro, X. Espadaler, P. Silveira, L. Navarro
Plant Ecololy, DOI 10.1007/s11258-009-9679-z

Figure. Dispersal of Polygala vayredae seeds by Formica gagates; a mature capsule with exposed seeds; b ant exploration; c seed detection; d seed removal; e seed transportation; f empty capsule fixed to the mother plant

Abstract. The present study assesses the dispersal mechanisms of the narrow endemic Polygala vayredae, analysing the functioning of its dispersal syndromes (anemochory and myrmecochory), the spatio-temporal variability of the disperser assemblage, foraging behaviour and dispersal ability, and the role of the elaiosome in ant attraction and seed germination. The dispersion of diaspores begins when either (1) capsules or seeds fall beneath the mother plant (barochory) or (2) the seeds are directly collected in the suspended capsules by ants (myrmecochory). As capsules frequently open and expose/disseminate seeds before leaving the mother plant, the adaptation for anemochory appears to be reduced and rarely functional, possibly with only occasional events of long-distance dispersal (e.g., under extreme weather conditions). P. vayredae is essentially myrmecochorous and a diverse array of ant species are involved in seed manipulation, with the elaiosome playing a major role in ant attraction. From the plant’s perspective for dispersal, the majority of ant species had a positive interaction with the seeds, but negative and potential neutral interactions were also observed. Overall, dispersal distances were limited and were mainly determined by ant body size. The frequency of interactions and the ant assemblage varied significantly both spatially and temporally, and these factors may have an effect on directing or disrupting the selection of plant traits. Low seed predation and similar germination rates of intact seeds compared with seeds without elaiosome indicate that seed predator avoidance and seed germination improvement after ant manipulation are not among the selective advantages of myrmecochory operating at present. Dispersal mechanisms that enhance seed dispersal within the population and only occasionally lead to long-distance dispersal events, along with the rarity and patchiness of suitable habitats, may be the main factors explaining the actual density and narrow distribution of this species.