Generalist birds govern the seed dispersal of a parasitic plant with strong recruitment constraints

Oecologia. 2014 Sep;176(1):139-47. doi: 10.1007/s00442-014-3013-8. Epub 2014 Jul 9.


Mistletoes constitute instructive study cases with which to address the role of generalist consumers in the study of plant-animal interactions. Their ranges of safe sites for recruitment are among the most restricted of any plant; therefore, frugivores specializing in mistletoe have been considered almost indispensable for the seed dispersal of these parasitic plants. However, the absence of such specialists in numerous regions inhabited by many mistletoe species raises the question of whether unspecialized vectors may successfully disperse mistletoe seeds to narrowly defined safe sites. Using the European mistletoe Viscum album subsp. austriacum as a study case, we recorded a broad range of 11 bird species that disperse mistletoe seeds. For these species, we studied the mistletoe-visitation rate and feeding behavior to estimate the quantity component of dispersal effectiveness, and the post-foraging microhabitat use, seed handling, and recruitment probabilities of different microhabitats as a measure of the quality component of effectiveness. Both endozoochory and ectozoochory are valid dispersal mechanisms, as the seeds do not need to be ingested to germinate, increasing seed-dispersal versatility. Thrushes were the most effective dispersers, although they were rather inefficient, whereas small birds (both frugivores and non-frugivores) offered low-quantity but high-quality services for depositing seeds directly upon safe sites. As birds behave similarly on parasitized and non-parasitized hosts, and vectors have broad home ranges, reinfection within patches and the colonization of new patches are ensured by an ample assemblage of generalist birds. Thus, a parasitic plant requiring precision in seed dispersal can rely on unspecialized dispersers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ecosystem*
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology
  • Linear Models
  • Mistletoe / physiology*
  • Passeriformes / physiology*
  • Seed Dispersal / physiology*
  • Spain
  • Symbiosis / physiology*