Seed dispersal potential by wild mallard duck as estimated from digestive tract analysis

marcel-klaassenAuthors: Erik Kleyheeg, Marcel Klaassen, Merel B. Soons

Source: Freshwater Biology 61 (10):1746-1758, OCT 2016

Brief summary of the paper: Dispersal of plant seeds by ducks and other waterbirds is of great importance to the ecology of freshwater habitats. To unravel the mechanisms of waterbird-mediated seed dispersal, numerous laboratory experiments have been conducted, but effects of seed and waterbird traits on dispersal potential have rarely been investigated under field conditions.

Through analysis of the digestive tracts of 100 wild mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) across a winter season in the Netherlands, we assessed (i) the inter-individual and seasonal variability of seeds in the digestive tract, (ii) the variability of digestive tract organ size and gizzard grit mass, and (iii) the potential effects of seed species traits and gut traits on the survival potential of ingested seeds.

We found 4548 ingested seeds of at least 66 plant species from a wide range of habitats, most of which were retained in the gizzard. Nineteen species had not previously been reported from mallard diets. Individual tracts contained anywhere between 0 and 1048 seeds, of up to 14 species (median of three species). Diet composition and digestive tract size varied substantially between individuals and over the course of the winter season. As predicted from controlled feeding studies, we found that also in wild mallards, size-dependent gut passage survival favours the dispersal of small-seeded species. Despite the large variation in gizzard and small intestine size in this study, their effect on the dispersal potential of ingested seeds in the field remains unclear. We found no difference in dispersal potential between plants species growing in wet or dry habitats.

This study demonstrates that wild mallards are opportunistic seed consumers with a very diverse diet as reflected by seed species composition in both the foregut and hindgut. However, we also show that serious limitations of field-based analyses compared to controlled experiments can impede drawing conclusions about gut passage survival of seeds. The large variability in diet composition among individuals and over time indicates high endozoochorous dispersal potential for a wide range of plant species by wild mallard in aquatic and wetland, as well as surrounding terrestrial habitats.