Dispersal via animals (zoochory) is a primary mechanism for seed exchange between habitat patches. Recent studies have established that many plant species can survive waterbird gut passage. To quantify the patterns and consequences of waterbird-mediated dispersal, information on ingestion and gut passage must be combined with bird movement data. Such analysis has recently revealed seed dispersal kernels by migrating waterbirds. However, since many waterbird populations are largely resident, and migrating populations spend only a minor part of the main dispersal season (autumn–winter) on active migration, daily regional-scale movements probably cause more frequent dispersal.
We synthesized high-resolution empirical data on landscape-scale movements and seed gut passage times in a key disperser species, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), using a spatially explicit, mechanistic model to quantify dispersal distributions resulting from daily autumn–winter movements. We evaluated how landscape composition and seed traits affect these dispersal patterns.
The model indicates that mallards generate highly clumped seed deposition patterns, dispersing seeds primarily between core areas used for foraging and resting. Approximately 34% of all dispersed seeds are transported to communal roost areas, which may function as reservoirs for mallard-dispersed species, and 7% are transported between foraging areas. Landscape-dependent movement patterns strongly affect the dispersal distributions, resulting in multi-modal dispersal kernels, with dispersal distances increasing with fragmentation of freshwater foraging habitat. Seed size-related gut retention times determine the proportion of seeds being dispersed away from the ingestion area, with larger seeds (20 mm3) having a 8–10% higher potential for long-distance dispersal than smaller seeds (0·2 mm3), if surviving gut passage. However, twice as many small seeds will finally accomplish long-distance dispersal due to their higher gut passage survival.
Synthesis. Firstly, this study reveals how seed dispersal patterns resulting from daily waterfowl movements are shaped by landscape-dependent differences in movement patterns. Secondly, seed survival appears more important than retention time in determining the scale of long-distance dispersal by non-migrating mallards. We conclude that the frequent flights of staging waterbirds result in directed dispersal over distances inversely related to wetland availability, indicating that they maintain landscape connectivity across a range from wet to increasingly dry landscapes.