Seed dispersal mutualisms and plant regeneration in New Zealand alpine ecosystems
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
The New Zealand alpine zone has many fleshy-fruited plant species, but now has a relatively depauperate animal fauna. The key question is, therefore, are native alpine plants still being dispersed, if so where to and by what? I first measured fruit removal rates among nine common species using animal-exclusion cages to compare natural fruit removal by all animals, and by lizards only. Over two years, mean percent of fruit removed by early winter ranged from 25–60% among species. Speed of fruit removal also varied depending on species. Secondly, I quantified which animals disperse (or predate) seeds of those fruits, into which habitats they deposit the seeds, and the relative importance of each animal species for dispersal, in two ways. A 2-year study using fixed-area transects to monitor faecal deposition showed that introduced mammals (especially possums, rabbits, hares, sheep, pigs and hedgehogs) were abundant and widespread through alpine habitat. Of the 25,537 faeces collected, a sub-sample of 2,338 was dissected. Most mammals dispersed most (> 90%) seeds intact. However, possums (numerically the important disperser) moved most seeds into mountain beech (Nothofagus solandri) forest, while rabbits, hares, and sheep dispersed seeds mainly into open grassland dominated by thick swards of exotic grasses (e.g. Agrostis capillaris and Anthoxanthum odoratum); all are less suitable microsites. Kea (Nestor notabilis), the largest and most mobile of only three remaining native alpine bird species, are potentially useful as a long-distance seed disperser, even though parrots are typically seed predators. I found that kea are numerically more important than all other birds combined, damage very few seeds, and are probably responsible for most dispersal of seeds between mountain ranges. Finally, I investigated the effects of seed deposition microsite (shady/high-light), pulp-removal (whole/cleaned), competition (soil dug/not-dug) and predation (caged/ not) on germination, growth and survival of eight subalpine plant species. There were strong positive effects of shady microsites for seed germination and seedling survival to 3.5 years for six of the eight species. Effects of other treatments were less important and varied among species and stages. Hence, both native birds and introduced mammals are dispersing alpine seeds, but the mammals often deposit seeds in habitats unsuitable for establishment. Any evaluation of the dispersal effectiveness of frugivores must consider their contribution towards the long-term success for plant recruitment through dispersal quantity and quality.