Nest-mediated seed dispersal



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Many plant seeds travel on the wind and through animal ingestion or adhesion; however, an overlooked dispersal mode may lurk within those dispersal modes. Viable seeds may remain attached or embedded within materials birds gather for nest building. Our objective was to determine if birds inadvertently transport seeds when they forage for plant materials to build, insulate and line nests. We also hypothesized that nest-mediated dispersal might be particularly useful for plants that use mating systems with self-fertilized seeds embedded in their stems. We gathered bird nests in temperate forests and fields in eastern North America and germinated the plant material. We also employed experimental nest boxes and performed nest dissections to rule out airborne and fecal contamination. We found that birds collect plant stem material and mud for nest construction and inadvertently transport the seeds contained within. Experimental nest boxes indicated that bird nests were not passive recipients of seeds (e.g., carried on wind), but arrived in the materials used to construct nests. We germinated 144 plant species from the nests of 23 bird species. A large proportion of the nest germinants were graminoids containing self-fertilized seeds inside stems – suggesting that nest dispersal may be an adaptive benefit of closed mating systems. Avian nest building appears a dispersal pathway for hundreds of plant species, including many non-native species, at distances of at least 100-200 m. We propose a new plant dispersal guild to describe this phenomenon, caliochory (calio = Greek for nest).

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Plant Ecology


Anemochory, birds, chasmogamy, cleistogamy, caliochory, non-native species


Ecology and Evolutionary Biology


Biology Department

Nest-mediated seed dispersal