The Short Term Germination and Establishment Success of Deer-Dispersed Seeds in Mesic Temperate Forests

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The Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society

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White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus, Zimmerman 1780) are known to disperse seeds through endozoochory, but the fates of these seeds are largely unknown. In both field and greenhouse studies, we examined the importance of fecal pellet decay to seed germination success and compared natural plant communities in microsites with and without deer pellets to determine the effects of deer endozoochory on short-term plant species composition. Pellets were collected in Delaware County, Ohio. After cold stratification, pellets were either crumbled or planted intact in the greenhouse to estimate numbers and species of viable seed present. These plantings produced germinants of 40+ taxa, 48% of which are non-native. Significantly more individuals germinated from crumbled than from intact pellets (P < 0.001), suggesting that pellet decay is crucial for germination success. In the field, feces deposited in the fall and spring decayed at rates that would allow seeds to escape the pellets in time for spring germination. Plant species diversity was also compared between forest microsites containing pellets and adjacent sites without pellets. Late spring plant diversity in pellet plots was similar to that of control sites, suggesting that the presence of deer pellets does not result in short-term compositional changes to the understory plant community. Our data support other studies that have also found deer to be capable of dispersing seeds of many plant species. Our study indicates that pellet decay facilitates germination for many of these species. However, given the similarity of plants found in microsites with and without pellets, seeds dispersed by deer did not become significant components of forest understories over a one year time period. It may be that seeds contained in pellets will enter the seed bank and germinate with a change in environment (such as a gap opening), but further field work must be done to determine the fates of seeds dispersed by deer in forest habitats.



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